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Vivian Hewitt

Vivian Hewitt was the commencement speaker for the CUBM class 2012. At that time she was designated an Urban Hero and given her Urban Heroes medallion and plaque, with a promise that her interview would be in this next book. The interview, conducted at her home in New York City, was so interesting that we doubled the space usually allotted for each Hero in this book. We hope you find what Vivian had to say as interesting as we did. She has lived an amazing life and we captured very little of it, even in this expanded interview.

JS: We are in New York City, and we are interviewing one of our original Urban Heroes, Vivian Hewitt. And we are in her home. She has graciously received us. Mrs. Hewitt, thanks for having us in your home.

VH: I’m delighted to have you.

JS: Now tell us some of the highlights of your life. Some of the roles you had in your professional career. VH: Well, let me go back to my roots. I am the direct descendent of Sylvie, a slave who was brought over from Guinea in the 1700’s, I believe, to Virginia, and then migrated to North Carolina. Sylvie had seven daughters, who were all reared on the same plantation; they were never sold. So I’m a descendent of one of the seven daughters. I’m the descendent of Priscilla. So my roots go back very, very far. And we are now in the eighth known generation of the family. I have five great-grandchildren. So I’m a direct descendent of Priscilla, one of the daughters. And we’re going to celebrate our 108th consecutive family reunion in Charlotte, North Carolina, where my family roots are in August. And they’ve asked me to be the family speaker and to tell some of the highlights of my life. I’ve lived a long, long time. I’m 93 years old. I was 93 on February 17th.

JS: That’s my daughter’s birthday, February 17th! But she’s only 33. You’ve got a few decades on her.

VH: I’m also of that generation of African-Americans who W.E.B. Dubois called “The Talented Tenth.” That is the 10% of the African-American community who were college trained, came from good families, and were expected to do good works to contribute to society. It was not a matter of wealth; not at all. It was a matter of class, per se. And you’re born into it.

Among those Talented Tenth, are the Tuskegee Airmen, who were very famous, who finally got their Congressional Medals of Honor and were rewarded for being the heroes that they were in World War II. They’re not very many of that Talented Tenth generation left. We’re all in our 80’s and 90’s.

And I’m also, as Tom Brokaw said, I’m one of the Greatest Generation. That’s, I’m a Depression kid, and a World War II kid. And I remember both, very, very well. I was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1920. My father’s work took him to New Castle. He was the butler in the home of the U.S. Senator who later became Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania; Senator Arthur Brown. And then, the Depression came, and it was a domino effect, and everyone in the town was affected.

But I remember the Depression very well. But I remember, I graduated from New Castle High School in 1937, and I was fortunate enough to be enrolled at Geneva College. And Geneva College played a very, very crucial part in my life. Geneva was always ahead of its time; I think, racially. One of my classmates who graduated from high school was Presbyterian and applied at Westminster College and refused her admission, and suggested that she apply to Geneva.

JS: And she was a person of color?

VH: Yeah. She did, and was admitted to Geneva. Westminster has changed, but Geneva always had one or two black students. Clarence Farmer, who later became a trustee, was the one who was responsible for getting my brother and I into Geneva College. And I worked, since it was the Depression, we had NYA (The National Youth Association), the Youth Works Progress Administration, and the Youth Administration. And I worked four years in the college library, in McCartney library, while I was there; $0.25 an hour. Can you imagine?

But since tuition was only $120 a semester, and the additional fee $40, can you imagine that? And the commutation fare, monthly commutation by train from New Castle was $7.20 a month. And the bus fare all up and down the valley was a nickel. So, I commuted to school by train for two years. And then for two years by automobile. Howard Montgomery, who graduated from Geneva and lived in New Castle, he’d pick me up and we’d stop in Ellwood City and get a couple of kids from Ellwood City, and then drive on down to the college.

And at that time, Geneva was a 90% commuter college. They only had two dorms: North Hall, which has since been demolished for the men, and McKee Hall for the women. But it’s an about face, a reverse; it’s true there’s 90% dormitory living and about 10% commutation now.

I love Geneva. My only regret was that I was a commuter and didn’t have the time to participate in college campus activities, to the degree that I would have liked to have participated. But I have lifelong friends from Geneva College, who are a few among the living. And, it was nice.

The only act of discrimination during my time that was notable; there were four of us who were freshman girls who entered. And three wanted to be in the Glee Club. And the Glee Club director wouldn’t accept them because he said, when we travel, we would have difficulty finding a place for you to stay. But he offered to have them as a trio. But some of the students were furious with him. He didn’t last too long at Geneva.

JS: What did you major in?

VH: I had a double major. I majored in psychology and French. And the last two years I was there, I worked part-time in the library. And I was Dr. Georgiana Wiley’s secretary. She asked for me to be her secretary. And at that time, African-Americans, we were called Negros or coloreds, there were six professions that you could be in. A preacher, a teacher, a social worker, a post office worker – if you were lucky – and if you were really lucky, a lawyer or a doctor. Those were the six professions. The ceiling was there.

And I absolutely know for sure, people who graduated from law school, but the Pennsylvania State Bar had a quota, only so many were going to pass the bar examination. And one of the people was a track star at Geneva College, and graduated from law school, but could never pass the bar examination, and that was Bill Butler. And Bill was a very competent person. But, they had quotas. So those were the times that we lived in. But the professors were wonderful and you got a really, really superior academic training . Really superior.

JS: So you graduated in what year?

VH: My original class was 1941. But I dropped out two years so that my brother could finish his two years, because it was the Depression time. And so, when I was out those two years, I went back to high school; you could do post-graduate work. And I took biology and typewriting and short-hand, to give me another skill. But my actual graduating class was 1943.

JS: And so you’re in the middle of World War II.

VH: Ah huh.

JS: So what do you do after you graduate?

VH: Well, I happened to be at an Urban League National Conference, at Camp Weldon Johnson, near Pittsburgh. And I met the executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban League, who my friend and I were the youngest people there, so we attracted a lot of attention. So he said to me, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well I’m debating whether to be a social worker or a librarian.” And he said, “We do not have a professional Negro librarian in the city of Pittsburgh. How are your grades?” I said, “I’m an honors student.” He said, “Apply to Carnegie Library School, and if they don’t accept you, let us know, and we’ll go to bat for you.”

But I applied to Carnegie Library School, and Miriam Grosh, who was the Geneva College librarian wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation. And I applied, and I was accepted. And I never will forget this, because Ralph Munn, the director, looked at me and said, “We’ve been waiting for someone like you to come along for a long time. I’m sorry you don’t look more like a Negro than you do, so that when people walk into the library, they’ll know what you are.”

Well see, my job was waiting for me, assured at Wiley Avenue Branch. There were a lot of Jewish people who still lived in the neighborhood. Irene Kaufman’s settlement was there, and we had a lot of Jewish clientele. And some of them were dark skinned, and some had kinky hair. Some of the women went to the same beauty shop that I did to get their hair straightened. So, you have to think of the times, take that remark, “I’m sorry you don’t look more like a Negro than you do”, because those were the times.

And I actually had friends who would come into the library and ignore me, because they thought that I was passing. And never, never in my life did I ever consider passing or think that I could. I was always very, very comfortable in my own skin. And the only, as a child of course you heard the n-word, but it was never directed; the worst insult I got was from a crazy mixed up playmate who called me a half-breed, and that was the worst I heard. And I cried.

But other than that, there was self-segregation, because I think generally speaking, Negros felt that they weren’t wanted, or anything like that. And I always referred, when I was in Pittsburgh, I always referred to way down south up north. Because, my classmates and I went into a pancake shop or something on Forbes Street, and the black chef came out of the kitchen to see me, to watch, but I was served.

But then in another restaurant, I was at Craig Street and Centre Avenue, called Varsity Grille. A white couple objected to my presence there, and when I went to pay the bill, the owner asked me not to come back anymore. And it was war years, and I’m aquarian, I never know how I’m going to react to anything. I never knew. And it was war years, and I blasted off and sounded off to him.

KB: You blasted off?

VH: I blasted off, I said, “How dare you ask me not to come in here. Men of my race are fighting and giving their lives for the likes of you.” The man standing behind me said, “If you don’t serve her, you won’t see me in this restaurant again.” And I learned later that he was a professor from the University of Pittsburgh, and belonged to the then Interracial Action Council. So, after that, oh and then when I went out to the streetcar to transfer to go to Wylie Avenue to work, where one of the men in the restaurant, one of the co-owners, came out and propositioned me! Oh! I was so angry. I was so angry. And I grew up with two brothers and four cousins, and they knew all the swear words, and I never swore. I blasted out every swear word that I ever knew.

JS: You pulled them out of reserve.

VH: I pulled them out of reserve! And I told him what to do. And then I went on to work. I should have gotten an Academy Award for being an actress, because I had to work with the public and pretend that nothing had happened. Later when I was over at the library school studying, I got angry all over again, and I started crying. And Kate Kolish, who was Jewish and who had escaped from Vienna with the assistance of American friends, was my colleague. And Kate comforted me, and she said about the restaurant, “Vivian, I know you like to eat at nice restaurants. She said, “But this is a restaurant that’s not exactly a hole in the wall.” It was Craig Street. She said, “They won’t object to serving you. I eat there. Let’s go there and eat.” And Kate and I would eat there.

JS: Nice.

KB: So that’s what you would call a friend.

JS: A friend, yeah. Now how many years were you in the Carnegie Library System?

VH: It was a year’s training. It was the equivalent of 30 hours of work. It was the equivalent of a master’s degree. But the degree was a bachelor’s of science in library science. And some years later they made that degree retroactive, some library schools, to a master’s degree. So it’s similar to a master’s degree. And the interesting thing about Pittsburgh, since I was working part-time during my year there at Wiley Avenue Branch Library, I couldn’t do my practice work that was required of you, because they weren’t going to let me do my practice work in Knoxville or South Side or East Liberty. They just weren’t ready for a black librarian.

And so, where do I do my practice work? New York City. 135th Street Branch Library. Wonderful, wonderful. And for the few weeks that I was here, I went all over the city to different libraries and do the original Shamburg people. They were the first role models, African-American librarians that I saw, and they were so wonderful to me. And they said, “Well Vivy, you’re doing library work business during the day. You’ve got to see some of New York City at night.”

So at night, they would take me to Café Society downtown – I heard Billie Holiday – and they would take me to the Elks Rendezvous, where I saw a fan dancer. We went to the Savoy Ballroom, where we danced. We went to Ethical Culture School where I heard lectures. It was wonderful. And my best friend who was living with me at 3102 Iowa Street, her husband was overseas in the war, and she was in Englewood, New Jersey, and she said, “Vivy, I can’t let you go to New York alone. I’m going with you.” So she came up that weekend and showed me how to ride the subway, the buses, and meet friends, and go to a Broadway play.

People were very, very protective of me. And the black professional workers, the doctors, the lawyers, and particularly the social workers in Pittsburgh; Orlee Enrico, and Nancy Lee, with whom I made my home for five years, were very protective of me, because really, I was depending on my success as a professional worker, depended on whether another Negro person would be admitted to the library school, and be hired in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Now, they weren’t ready to promote me vertically to be a branch librarian. No, oh no. Not at that time. I was promoted, transferred, vertically. So, I was to be transferred to East Liberty. But I wasn’t to let anybody know at all, because Miss Fisher had to prepare the staff for a black assistant librarian. Which meant that when she was not there, I was in charge.

And you didn’t know… At Wiley Avenue, I did have one incident. There was a library school student who was doing her practice work there. And she wanted to eventually work in the Philippines, or something like that. But I was instructing her, and then at the break, one of the clerical assistants came to me and said, “Miss Davidson, she’s sitting down there crying.” And I guess she told her something. She was from the South, and so she couldn’t tolerate taking orders from me, being a colored. So that was the end of her at Wiley Avenue Branch Library. That was the only incident I ever had.

JS: So again, how many total years were you in the Carnegie System? Did they promote you?

VH: No, I was being transferred. I was transferred to Wiley Avenue to Homewood. And to her credit, Miss Eugenia Brunot, who was a wonderful boss. And she came from a very historical family in Pittsburgh. Brunot Island was named for her ancestor. And they were transferring her out to Homewood because demographically Pittsburgh was changing. They had the plans for demolishing the Lower Hill, and those people were moving out to Homewood. And Homewood at the time, was upper class blacks and middle and upper class whites. The nicest library in the city.

JS: Still is.

VH: Miss Brunot was to be transferred out there to be branch librarian. And to her credit, she said, “I’ll only accept the transfer if I can take my staff with me.” Well, they would only let her take me, and Gladys Howe. Gladys Howe, who worked in the children’s room, and who was hired after I was hired, and noticeably brown skinned. So anyhow that was it.

In Homewood, I worked at Wiley Avenue from 1943 to 1947, I believe. And then from ’47 to ’49 at Homewood Branch. Now Pittsburgh, at the time, you must remember, was called the Smoky City, it was the Steel City. And when you saw smoke billowing from those stacks, and flames billowing from those stacks, that was prosperity, but it was also detrimental to my health. I suffered so from sinus, and my mother who was very avant guarde, said, “You’ll never do any good as long as you live in a city. You’ve got to get out.”

So what did I do? I wrote the darndest letters of application to Southern libraries to Talladega, to Tuskegee, to Howard University. And never heard anything from them. Never heard anything. So two years later, you know you got your months vacation, and you were to have; I was vacationing and I had my little niece with me in Davidson, North Carolina, with my aunt.

And I got an S.O.S. You have a call from Atlanta University; they want you to come for an interview. So I flew from Charlotte, North Carolina to Atlanta. And, you know, you have to make decisions on the spot, and I was hired immediately. And so, I accepted and then, I didn’t have time to consult or anything like that.

And ordinarily, a professional would be gracious enough to give a months notice. And mine was about 3 weeks notice, and I resigned. And the letter that I got from Mr. Mund was, “Your resignation sounds as though you resigned in anger. It is not accepted, merely tabled. You are expected to come back here and to, you know, whatever it was.”

I wasn’t angry at being transferred to East Liberty. My mother had said, you’ve got to get out of here. So that was their interpretation. But I remained friends with Miss Brunot and Kate Kolish and with my colleagues after that.

So, I accepted the job in Atlanta and I went down and arrived on September 17th. And the dean and her husband, her husband taught at Morehouse College, and the dean Virginia Lacey Jones, that that nice red-headed man from New York City and Miss Davidson would make a nice couple, wouldn’t you agree?

And so, first day on the job in the library, I was librarian of information library and also teacher; I taught public library and beginning reference and information. And so, Dean called me up into her office, and I went up and I thought, oh well, and there was Mr. Hewitt; she introduced me to Mr. Hewitt. And I won’t say it was love at first sight. It grew. But we were 90 day wonders.

KB: 90 day wonders?

VH: 90 day wonders because we were, it was so funny because on October 17th, which was Founders Day, they honored the new faculty and introduced them, my roommate and I had a wine and cheese reception in our suite, and we invited our colleagues from the library school and from the English department. And I told a big white lie. I looked at John and said, “You know, I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m going to say when Dr. Clement introduces me. And I have to respond. But what would you say if I got up and announced our engagement?” Wasn’t that nervy? He said, “I dare you.”

So I considered we were engaged. But we had a formal engagement party at Dr. Jones’ home on Thanksgiving Day, and we invited our friends there. And then, we happened to be at a library conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dean Jones and a couple faculty members. And I stayed with my aunt in Davidson, which was just 20 miles away. So my aunt always made clothes for me. And she stopped sewing for me when I became 21.

And she said, “I’m not going to make any more clothes for you until I make your wedding dress.” And she kept her promise. So when I was there that weekend, we went into Belks and Ivys, the main stores in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they all knew her because she made bridesmaid dresses for all the college professor’s kids. And so, we went behind the scenes, and she said, “See this thing? Your dress, you can wear it inside and out, and will have better seams than this one.” So we bought the material for my wedding dress, the lace, the pearls. For my sister and for my niece and everything. And, that was it.

JS: What year are we at now?

VH: 1949.

JS: I was born in ’50. I’m just coming into the scene now, and you’ve had a full life already.

VH: Yeah, 1949, and we got married in New Castle, Pennsylvania on December 26, 1949. John’s priest from New York City came, Dr. Shelton. And my mom wanted me to get married in the house, because she had married in the home. We could have married in the church; the priest invited us to do that. But mom wanted us to be married in the house. And so, the girls who would have been my bridesmaids were the hostesses in my reception.

And then we honeymooned in New York. And, we got some cash for wedding presents. And with that cash we went to the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. We stopped over in Pittsburgh and went to the Carnegie Museum, and we bought very, very good prints.

So we started collecting right from the very beginning. That was the very beginning of it. And we took those paintings back to Atlanta, had them framed, and lived with them in our suite. We still have some of them. My son took some of them to his dormitory when he was in college. And we got the Rouault, the original is in the Carnegie in Pittsburgh. And I liked that.

My husband had gone two years to Harvard and had finished up at New York University. So he had a much wider cultural bearing than I had, because he had the Boston area, the New York area. And he widened my horizon. Although, I took art history at Geneva College, and Dr. Rodney K. Ketchum taught the course, I got hung onto art, and was particularly enamored by the French Impressionists from that class. So we were a good combination.

We started collecting from the very beginning. Then the circumstance in Atlanta, as a southern city, was a good city – as long as you stayed in the city limits and didn’t go out to where the rednecks were. And we had a segregated city, but we lived a self-contained life on the campuses, because there was Morehouse, Spellman, Clark, and Morris Brown in Atlanta University. And everybody who was somebody, we met Ralph Bunche, we met Ira de A. Reid, we met all of the greats, we did.

KB: Where did you live in Atlanta?

VH: I lived in the dormitory. We had a faculty suite. And then the second year, after we married, Dr. Benny Mays, who was truly, truly a great man, called us and we sublet a faculty member’s apartment on Fair Street. That faculty member was off on Sabbatical. So that’s where we lived. I did recruiting for the library school to the colleges in the South, but you know, it was so funny, I would look calm on the outside, but we’d be churning, because it was segregated.

You know, you rode in the colored car or the white car, I went to the station and the man put me in the white car. So what am I going to do? When you get to a city and you don’t know if you could ride in a white taxi with a white driver or not. In Atlanta, it was against the law for blacks to ride in white cabs, or for whites to ride in black cabs.

But when I get to Louisville, Kentucky, my friends say, “Okay Vivian, where do you prefer to sit?” We’re just now beginning to challenge them. “Do you want to sit in the white waiting room or the black colored waiting room?” I said, okay, I’ll sit in the white. But then the taxi driver was white, and he pointed when he was driving me out and he knew all of the landmarks, this university, he was pointing out everything. You had to be ambivalent, you had to go with the local mores. It wasn’t easy. It was not easy.

JS: So how many years were you in Atlanta?

VH: Two and a half. And John’s mother had died, and his three half-sisters and half-brother wanted him to come home to the family home, so they lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem. And, I was pregnant. And I didn’t want, if I had a choice, to bring up a child in a completely segregated area. And so, I resigned, and Dr. Clements says, “I accept your resignation.” And I asked if I could use him as a reference and he said, “Hahaha. I’ll tell them you came down here to get a husband and then took him away.” But Atlanta was wonderful.

As I say, I am so blessed and so lucky. My husband and his family were native New Yorkers. Now when I was doing my practice work, my friend introduced me to people that I have kept in touch with. But my husband’s family, his sisters and his brother were all teenagers, when he was born. He was the only child of his mother’s second marriage.

And they knew all of the Harlem Renaissance people. So I met the cultural elite, and indeed one sister-in-law was Langston Hughes’ confidant and secretary for a 10-year period. And so I knew Langston quite well. And, I knew Ida Cullen Cooper, the widow and former wife of Countee Cullen; knew her very well. And got to know, became very close friends with Marjorie Walton Rochester whose father Lester Walton was the diplomat to Liberia, among the first of the African-Americans. So we were in the cultural elite.

KB: And where did you live at that point?

VH: In my husband’s family home on Sugar Hill. They had a brownstone.

KB: So everyone was [there].

VH: Yeah, yeah. And it was a wonderful neighborhood. And that whole neighborhood now is a National Landmark Area. And beautiful, beautiful house. We had the top floor.

KB: I read in your book. I read that part.

VH: So when I was in Pittsburgh, I had to work on Saturdays sometimes and at night, a couple nights a week. And on Saturdays in the fall, all my friends would be going to the Pitt football games, and I’m working and wishing I were at the football game. Because Pittsburgh is a baseball and football town, as you know. And when I was in library school, one of my classmates, Anne Stephy Collins, was a debutante for the Pittsburgh Social Register. She graduated from Smith College. She was the most sophisticated of my library school classmates. And she told us about special libraries association in New York City, that would help you find a job and match you up, if you belonged. And also told us about Ethical Culture School. And that stuck in my mind.

And when I came back to New York and I was ready to go back to work, and I had good contacts with H.W. Wilson company, because I had been a consultant for library literature and all. So, I asked Dorothy Cole if she would give me a recommendation. And she said, “Yes, go to Crowell-Collier.” So I went down there and I was hired on the spot. In their reader’s research service . And I worked there 2.5 years. Never worked so hard in all my life. But it was 5 days a week, because I contended I was going to work 5 days a week, 9-5. And, boy did I work hard.

But it was the making of me. Because I became very savvy in reference work. And I knew there was no question that stumped me. I knew where to find the answer, or who could help me find the answer. It was very strenuous work. And my son’s nursery school at the time was downtown, and it was near Special Libraries Association. And I had gone down for a parent’s meeting or something.

So I went over to Special Libraries Association. And unlike ALA at the time, Special Libraries Association was not racist or bigoted and Kathleen Stemmonds was the executive director. And she took my resume and matched me up with Rockefeller Foundation. And at Rockefeller Foundation, it was just serendipity. Dean Rusk was the president. Dean Rusk has graduated from Davidson College.

JS: Down in North Carolina.

VH: And when I met, and was introduced to him, I said, “Mr. Rusk, I think we know someone in common. My uncle, Hood Norton, is the barber.” My uncle had the main and only barber shop in Davidson, North Carolina. He said, “Oh yes. Hood has given me many a haircut.” And my maiden name was Davidson. Historically, if you know anything about the South, and if you go back, I have Davidson ancestors on the white side. And then Lindsey Kimball was the executive vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation. And he was also one of the main executives, or people, of the United Negro College Fund. And he knew Benny Mays, Rufus Clement, and all of those [people]. So I don’t think anybody else could have gotten that job, having the contacts.

JS: It was like a jigsaw puzzle; perfect fit. And what year are we at now?

VH: That was 1956. I worked through February of ’63.

JS: So about seven years.

VH: Yeah.

JS: At Rockefeller, you worked seven years.

VH: And can you imagine, I had to pinch myself. A small-town girl from the hills of Western Pennsylvania and you’re at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, on the 55th floor, one floor below the Rockefeller family main offices, referred to as 5600. And I had privileged access to go to Room 5600, because their library was there. As a matter of fact, I was tie lined to their library, because we worked in conjunction.

KB: What did you do there for them?

VH: At Rockefeller Foundation? We had about 150 on staff and we have five programs, and we had a library, a private library, for the staff and officers only. And if we didn’t have it in our library, I did a lot of inter-library loan, a lot. And I had no prescribes budget per se, you know, because what they wanted they got. And I was the one who had to get it for them.

JS: Talk to me a little bit about, we’re up into the 60’s now, what role did faith play? Church and faith and your upbringing in the church. What role did that have in your development and in any of your decisions?

VH: I was raised in the AME church, the African Methodist Episcopal church. And, I am eternally grateful for my upbringing in the AME church. And the AME church was founded many, many years ago by Richard Allen. And, in high school you couldn’t, you know, you’re black and you’re not in the drama club or anything like that. I never had a black teacher in my life, except for my Sunday school teachers. And my Sunday school teachers were wonderful. And we went to Sunday school, and Bethel AME church, we had an orchestra, and one of the members conducted the little orchestra. And my brother played the violin, my sister the piano, my cousin the violin. And the pastor’s wife, we did the children’s day program, the Easter programs, and we did the plays.

The church was responsible for my being able to have the poise and the confidence that I have developed over the years in speaking before groups. When I was 15 years old, I was the mistress of ceremonies at our Sunday school convention in Homestead, at the AME church in Homestead. And I went to the Sunday school conventions, and you met all these people from the different churches up and down the Valley, Beaver Valley, and all.

And I have lifelong friends. Alma Burgess, in Pittsburgh, an imminent social worker of the time. Her father was a minister of the AME church in Duquesne; I was maid of honor in her wedding; we’re still friends.She’s still living, and we’re very, very close. So the church was crucial to my upbringing. But I always has leanings towards the Episcopal church.

My mom was in Statesville, North Carolina, where she first lived for the first seven or eight years of her life, I think went to the Episcopal church, and her friends were Episcopalians. But when we came to New Castle, you know Martin Luther King said, the most segregated hour is Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. So you just didn’t go. When I graduated from Geneva College and went down to Pittsburgh to live, I started attending Holy Cross Church. I never was confirmed.

But when I married my husband, who was a cradle Episcopalian, and came to New York, then I was confirmed. So I’ve been an Episcopalian since 1952. But, the AME church was crucial in my upbringing. And as I say, I never will forget it, because I got used to speaking before crowds. So I am not fazed by speaking to crowds.

But I will tell you this, when I was invited to speak at Geneva [in 2012], my anxiety level was so high, I couldn’t sleep. My anxiety level was so high. And I even went to my doctor and said, what’s the matter with me. And that was it, but I got over it.

JS: Well, you did a great job. Someone once told me being nervous is just your body preparing for its best performance. And that’s what you were doing. You were just preparing for your best performance. Well you’ve spent almost your entire adult life now in New York City.

VH: Oh yes. And one of the highlights at Rockefeller Foundation was when Dean Rusk and Mr. Kimball were with their wives doing an on-site visit at our agricultural library in Mexico City, and the librarian would say, “Oh I’m going to be away on foundation business for all summer, and my work is going to pile up.” Mr. Rusk turned to her and asked, “How would you like some help from New York City?” She said, “Oh, I wouldn’t dare ask Mrs. Hewitt, she’s married and has a child.” He said, “That’s not for us to decide. We’ll ask Mrs. Hewitt.” And they did.

And so I spent the whole summer of 1958 in Mexico City as a bibliographer and the librarian at our Mexico City office. And the chief officer at the Mexico City office was Dr. Norman Borlaug, who later became a Nobel Prize winner. He was a young man about 50 years old and those officers would have on their army fatigues and their boots and they would go out to the Agricultural Experimental Station.

They’d be plowing the field and everything. And when harvest time came, they would bring the vegetables and things in to the staff to share. It was a wonderful thing. And then, Mr. Rusk’s idea that you don’t isolate yourself in the American community, you get out and meet the locals.

And through Langston Hughes, who had a good friend, he wrote a letter to him who happened to be a lawyer and a journalist, and his wife was a photographer. I met them and then the office manager, I couldn’t keep up with the pesos and this and that, I said, “Manage my money for me.” So, she managed my money for me. And she said, “Mrs. Hewitt, you’ve got to see some of Mexico City and Mexico,” she said. “You have to pay rent,” I was on a per diem, “no matter where you are.” Check your things at the hotel and take off for the weekend.

And she would plan my trips for me. I was reluctant, in 1958, for a woman traveling alone, I was pioneering that you know. But she said, “Oh no, you’ve got to go to Acapulco.” Planned a weekend for me in Acapulco. So I’m at the hotel and the guy says, “You’ve got to take the yacht trip around. You don’t pay me now. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay me.” But I went and there was a travel agent, a young agent traveling alone, and we teamed up. And then when I was having breakfast, I was sitting there, and there was a family having breakfast, and their kids with the maids, were at another table, and the kids, one of them was six years old, and I thought, “Oh, my son is six years old.” They looked over at me and I looked so lonesome. They came over and invited me to join them. And it was a veterinarian in Acapulco, Dr. Julio Lona, and their wife Rosemary and their family.

So on weekends, I was either with Manuella Gonzalez, or Dr. Lona and his family. So, and then if people from New York would come, they would look me up at the hotel. So the whole summer was wonderful. And I kept in touch with my family, because Kodak was right across the street from me, and I had an 8mm camera. And I would take pictures.

And with Isa being the photographer, she showed me the best things to do. So I had a wonderful time. I went back to Mexico City to visit eight times. And I met Elizabeth Catlett, the sculptor and artist, and we became very close friends, and we remained so until her death last year. And she got an honorary doctorate from Carnegie Mellon. Because when she got a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, and they wouldn’t admit her when they found out she was black. So sixty years later, Jared Cohon honored her with an honorary doctorate.

KB: That’s impressive of CMU.

VH: Yeah. So, Rockefeller was fine and then, I’m a people person, having worked in the public library. And having been confined to staff use only, over my desk came an announcement that they were looking for a librarian at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And you had to know some French. Okay!

JS: That’s right. You majored in French.

VH: So I went over and had worked with them on the telephone. And it was made in heaven. (___) of the most wonderful, wonderful years. It was wonderful. And then, the succeeding president promoted me to a program officer, the library’s program officer, senior staff. And then I became very active in special libraries, and he approved of my running for president for special libraries, which I became in 1978. Which meant that I had to be out of the office making chapter visits and so forth. And then Special Libraries Association had me as their representative to the International Federation of Libraries and Associations. And I worked very hard in that. And I went to 12 countries. The Philippines, Kenya, Budapest, Copenhagen, Paris. Oh you name it, I had a wonderful experience.

JS: Let me go back again, I didn’t quite catch it. What were you the president of that took you out of the office?

VH: Special Libraries Association. And my knowledge of Special Libraries Association goes back to Carnegie Library School classmate Anne Stephy Collins, who told me about Special Libraries. Also, my son was enrolled in Ethical Culture School, from the very beginning. He went from kindergarten through Fieldston. I was able to tell her, my husband and I were vacationing in Savannah, Georgia, where she had retired. And we had breakfast with her and talked.

And I said, “Anne, you were the one that planted the seed and told me about Special Libraries Asssociation and Ethical Culture School and that played a crucial part in my life.” And I said, “I wanted you to know that.” She said, “Well Vivian, I had no idea. I will tell my children.” So I went full circle. Carnegie Library School, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, from which I retired.

KB: That is full circle.

VH: Yeah, full circle. But then my friends wouldn’t let me stay retired. They called and I worked five years after that?

KB: Ah. Where?

VH: I was the chief librarian and information specialist at Katharine Gibbs School, which opened up a whole new world for me. Because I taught, and taught the girls library usage, and became very expert in audio visuals. And worked with the faculty on selecting the films. 2.5 years at Katharine Gibbs, and then I was home, and then my friend from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Vivian, you’ve got to come.” I worked 20 hours a week at Council on Foreign Relations as the assistant chief librarian. And that was another world.

JS: What year are we at there?

VH: We’re from 1988 - 1990, I believe.

JS: Now, we’re sitting in your home. There is art everywhere. We alluded to the art earlier. Talk to us a little bit about your philosophy as an art collector.

VH: Well, you know. I was in public school at a time when in grade school we had art and art teachers. We had art classes. And in junior high school we had art classes. Now I was never that great shakes as an artist at all, but in my elementary school, the first art that I remembered seeing up on the wall, Rosa Bonheur Horses. And my aunt had in her home, Millet’s The Gleaners. My mom and dad had on our living room wall a landscape of a cow pasture, an oil painting that had been given to them as a wedding present.

So I was always interested and always exposed to art. And always interested. And my classmates, I always admired them, who could paint and who could draw. I couldn’t, but I always had a deep appreciation for it, always. And if you’re ever asked if a book has ever influenced your life, name it. The book that influenced me.

I was in eighth grade, in junior high school, and I had to give a book report, and I went to the library and selected Black Majesty by John W. Vandercook. And it was a story of Henri Christophe and taking the Revolution in Haiti, and of Haiti becoming a free country. And I always heard my mother speak about the French, how liberated they were because during World War I, the African-American soldiers were accepted by France. And then I took French beginning in junior high school, and also in college.

And so, when I was engaged to marry, I said to my mom, “What would you say if John and I married at Spellman Chapel with Dr. Clement and Dr. Mays performing the ceremony? And then we honeymoon in Haiti.” And then she said, “Your father said for you to come home.” But I always wanted to go to Haiti, and having read that book and being so proud, we went to Haiti in 1960.

And there were very few Americans going to Haiti at that time. And, just became enamored of the art and of the country. It was beautiful at that time. The forests hadn’t been decimated or anything. And, got to use my French. We were at the Montana Hotel, which was destroyed during the earthquake a couple of years ago. We were at the Montana and the diplomats who were waiting for their houses stayed there. And there were a couple of little 9-year-old boys along with our 9-year-old son, we became good friends, and we’d lounge around the swimming pool, and then we rented a car and we would drive all over.

We met all of the artists, and we became firmly entrenched in the art scene and our first major collection was Haitian art. We had a museum quality of Haitian art of about 250 pieces or so. And we’ve given portions of that to the Delta Art Center in Winston- Salem. Geneva College has some. My grand-daughters have some. The Gantt Center has some, and we sold some to collectors. So I still have about 25 or 30 works of Haitian art that are here.

So, the first collection was Haitian art. Well, my husband said, “You know Viv… My sister-in-law had a gallery. The only black art gallery in Harlem at the time at 135th Street and 7th Avenue. And she knew all the artists.” And he said, “You know, we know these artists. We better start investing in our own heritage and culture, while we can afford it.” So we stopped concentrating on Haitian art, and started getting African-American art.

In 1960, the first African-American art was from my cousin, Dr. Eugene Grigsby, who was working on his doctorate in art education at New York University under Hale Woodruff. And we bought three original pieces from him. And then he introduced us to his friends, Charles Austin, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Bob Blackburn; the major, major African-American artists, who were not mainstreamed at that time, with the exception of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. And we could afford it.

I don’t think we paid more than $500 for a piece of African American art at that time. We were pioneers. I had friends, professionals, who would think nothing of spending $500 or more to entertain their bridge club, but they wouldn’t spend that to invest in art. So we became art partrons, and art collectors early on. We always collected art.

And my husband’s health began to deteriorate, noticeably. He, for the last ten years of his life, he was a freelancer and worked from home. He was a medical journalist. And, he wrote for magazines that were for the profession only. He wrote for Frontiers of Psychatry, Journal of Pediatrics, Emergency Medicine Hospital Practice, Medical Tribune, and those things. When his health began to deteriorate, we went to our lawyer and did our estate planning.

He looked at our art, and asked what we were going to do about the art. And we said we would like to keep it together as a collection. We would like to sell it to a medium-sized museum, or a non-profit organization who would use it as an educational tool for young people and others. That’s the 80’s, and the arts were getting short shrift, even by the United States government.

We had two brokers, and for five years they were trying to sell it here again. My classmate from Carnegie Library School’s son was the curator for American Art at the Dayton Institute of Art. And he knew that we were trying to sell the Hewitt Collection. As a matter of fact, Nicky was interested in buying it but couldn’t because they were raising money for expansion. But he knew about the Hewitt Collection.

So, his assistant was hired by the former director of the Dayton Institute who was then working at the Mint Museum in Charlotte. And Todd knew about the Hewitt Collection. Hugh McColl, a banking icon, along with David Rockefeller, and the Mellons, and I call him an emancipated Southerner, Southern gentleman. He wanted an African American collection to be the inaugural exhibit in the Mint Museum in uptown Charlotte, where he would have a free to the public museum. So, Todd, was also curator for Hugh McColl. So knowing about Mr. McColl wanting an African- American exhibit, he called Nicky Vazer and said, “Should I contact the Hewitt Collection, do you think they would mind?” And Nicky said, “By all means, contact the Hewitts.” The rest is history. It was in Nations Banks, but they flew by private jet, the foundation direction, and Todd Smith, the curator; and the paintings were hanging. All of those 58 paintings were hanging. And they looked and they didn’t say anything.

And she said to me, Mrs. Hewitt – they played it close to their chest – when we make our minds we work fast. So in about three weeks time they called and they said, “We’re taking all 58.” And so then it was the negotiations between our lawyer and their lawyer, with the proviso that the details be kept confidential, and they have been. My son doesn’t even know the details of it. Hugh McColl bought that collection, those 58 pieces, as a promised gift to the African-American cultural center, provided they build the building to house it.

It took them ten years to raise the funds. And while they’re raising the funds, he as a public relations gesture, sends that collection touring all over to cities where they had major facilities. So I went to the openings. I visited 30 cities. San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas, Texas, Memphis, Tennessee, Fort Lauderdale, DeLand, Naples, Jacksonville, Howard University, Baltimore Museum of Art, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, you name it. So hundreds of thousands of people from pre-K to the total community, black and white, have been exposed to the Hewitt Collection.

And I was always so proud to say that after every talk that I would give, I would talk 10 or 15 minutes, number one, you only buy what you love. Number two, you don’t have to be wealthy to live with good art. Number three, select local artists, because they’re very competent local artists. And number four, if you have children who have talent, nurture them and encourage them. Because it’s a noble profession.

And so, I’m known more in the past 15 years as an art collector and art patron, more than I am as a librarian. Although I had a major, major career as a professional librarian.

KB: Oh, you have. Can you tell us about this quilt?

VH: My daughter in law replicated all 58 pictures. She took a course somewhere at the Smithsonian on transferring. And she did that, and she replicated the cover of the catalog, and surprised me, and at the opening at Howard University of the Hewitt Collection, she had those pieces and had Jonathan Green sign them. And one time I was at one of the openings, and the sheet cake was a replica of that; I needed to cut it! But every curator bounded the show differently so that when I would walk into it, and I’d say wow! It’s been a wonderful life.

KB: Just absolutely fascinating.

VH: Beginning with the Geneva College really.

JS: Well we’ve been going an hour and 15. I want to be sensitive to your time. Our listeners, our readers, it’s probably going to be hard, but give us some summary statements of what you would tell people who are starting today, who want to make an impact, who want to make a difference. What do you tell them?

VH: A difference in?

JS: Their world. In their community.

VH: Oh, one person can make a difference. Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. In Geneva College, in one of my classrooms, there was a framed saying, “Prayer Changes Things.” And I do believe wholeheartedly and sincerely that prayer changes things. And also believe that one person can make a difference. For example, I was traveling in South Africa a few years ago with a group of retired professionals. We stayed at a lovely, lovely hotel. And in a lot of hotels, they have a little thing asking you to evaluate it and to leave it with them. I didn’t fill it out and I put it in my purse.

When I got home and I opened my pocket book and I saw this evaluation and I filled it out. The manager’s name was there, and I wrote him a letter, and I said that the hotel was beautiful, the food good, the service wonderful. Since most of us were retired professionals, it would have been more comfortable for us had there been grab bars in the bathroom. About a month or so later I got a letter from the management, and he said, “Mrs. Hewitt, thank you for your letter. You will be pleased to know that there are now grab bars in every bathroom in the hotel.”

JS: So you took the time to give the feedback and you made a difference.

VH: Yeah. One person can make a difference. You are unique, you are important, and your thoughts and words count. Believe in it. Trust your instincts. Trust your intuition. And make a difference.

JS: One last question. Do you have any involvement in the library work. Do you stay in touch with anything?

VH: Well, I’ll tell you. I’m out of the library world, per se. I keep my membership in American Special Library Association. And the director, retired director of Special Libraries Association, and I are very close friends. But I would have to be retrained, because there are no card catalogs. Everything is in the new technology. And I believe in the new technology, when it works. And when it works, it’s wonderful. But when it doesn’t work, it’s terrible. And I’m from the old school, I like the touch, the feel of a book. And I think there will always be books.

KB: Yes! There’s nothing better than reading a book and just curling up. Oh, it’s just so wonderful.

JS: Well, I’m high tech, but I still journal with a pen. I like the feel of the pencil and a pen on paper. I do lots of online things. Well thank you so much for your time. And we could talk for days, and maybe we need to.

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