This February, the Library is celebrating Black History Month with several articles taken from interviews of influential figures in the HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Today the focus is on two prominent Chicagoans, the 14th and current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden; and investment banker and current Chair of Starbucks, Mellody Hobson.
Carla Hayden (1952- ), 14th and current Librarian of Congress
Carla Hayden was chief librarian for the Chicago Public Library System. She was the second African American to become executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD. She was president of the American Library Association, and was nominated to her current post by President Barack Obama. She assumed office in September 2016 as the first woman and first African American to serve as Librarian of Congress.
Carla Hayden’s parents were both musicians trained at the Millikin University School of Music, Decatur, IL, and she jokes that she didn’t get the talent and “that’s why I’m sitting here, a librarian.” She was five when her father, a classically trained violinist on the faculty of Florida A&M, joined the Cannonball Adderley jazz quintet. The family moved to New York where her father took her to studio sessions with Miles Davis and others. As a pacifier, they “put me in a corner with a stack of books, picture books at first … but I’ve always loved to read …”
A favorite book was “Bright April” by Marguerite de Angeli who illustrated the story of a little Black girl with “beautiful, very realistic illustrations … I checked it out of the library so much, my mother … thought that that was my book.”
Her grandparents in Springfield, IL took her to visit a member of their church, librarian Margaret Prendergast, where she worked at the Illinois State Library; and “that was a big deal ‘cause … the general public doesn’t usually get to go into a library like that.” Hayden remembered Miss Prendergast as the stereotypical librarian with the bun and glasses but says she was “feisty in her own way because she started collecting books about Black people, and started a special collection there.”
It wasn’t until after graduation from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1973 that Hayden thought seriously about being a librarian. When a former classmate came into the public library when she was there and told her the library was hiring anybody with a bachelor’s degree, she interviewed and was assigned to work with children’s librarian Judy Zucker, who was white but had an afro and wore jeans. She “was on the floor … giving story time to a group of autistic children, Black children … And I thought, wow, this is not what I thought it was gonna be … it was totally different from Miss Pendergast [sic]. But it was something that really spoke to me …”
Library school almost proved a roadblock, however, when Hayden applied to the prestigious graduate program at the University of Chicago. Dean Peggy Sullivan told her, “I don’t think you’re the type to be a librarian.” Hayden, figuring her comment “must be racial,” “came back the next day. And I said, ‘Ms. Sullivan, you don’t know what type I am.’ And that’s when she looked at me, and she said, ‘Oh, okay. You are the type.'”
Mellody Hobson (1969- ), Investment Banker
Investment banker Mellody Hobson was president at Ariel Investments and is currently Chair of the board of directors of Starbucks. She was a regular contributor on Good Morning America, CNN, and ABC News. Ebony magazine named her one of 30 Leaders of the Future. The 2001 Switzerland World Economic Forum named Hobson a Global Leader of Tomorrow. She married George Lucas in 2013.
Investment banker Mellody Hobson had five mothers growing up in Chicago — at least that’s what her mother called her sisters who were practically grown when Hobson was born into a second marriage. She doesn’t remember her father who was not part of her life while she was growing up. Mostly, Hobson remembers that she and her siblings were “very, very, very independent” and had to “get smart about taking care of ourselves” while their mother worked in real estate.
Hobson was a “very obsessive” child who hated not going to school on snow days and would “burst into tears” until her mother “would go to the TV and show me all the schools that were canceled …” She says she was “a weird little kid.” Fear of her 1st grade teacher in Ogden International Baccalaureate School caused her to be moved in with failing 2nd grade students. “There was no other 1st grade for me to go into … my whole thing became doing better than they would do.” In 5th grade she won a declaratory speech contest, reciting James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” “I’d like really act it out … He flung the moon and the stars you know into the sky …” She did well enough to be cast in a local public radio program and then a TV program, “Beyond the Magic Door.”
At Princeton University, Hobson’s senior thesis was the politicization of Black children in South Africa, and in 1991 she went to South Africa as “what’s called a Task Force Leader” for junior kids. They met Nelson Mandela by chance in an airport and he took time to talk with them and ask their opinions of South Africa. “A gentle man in the true definition of the word,” he treated them like VIPs, telling them that he couldn’t wait to go back to the office and tell everyone that he’d met them.
The trip to South Africa, where “extremes were so extreme,” made Hobson “more cognizant of injustice” in America — “Seeing all sorts of people who worked hard and … still didn’t get the same opportunity … shook some of my basic foundations and what I thought [the] work ethic in America was all about.”
Being the first undergraduate summer intern ever hired by minority-owned Ariel Investments led to a permanent job. The company was small, very young, scrappy, very diverse, with people working around the clock doing whatever it takes. “My position was to work on special projects in the marketing department related to the growth of our mutual funds …” In the newsletter, Hobson wrote in laymen’s terms “stories about what affected us, stories about where our investment strategy was rooted.”
During the short time it has taken for her to rise from Director of Marketing to President, Hobson has evangelized about the need for the Black community to invest “on par with our white counterparts,” noting the disparity of investments between Blacks and whites with similar income. “And if we do that then we will we will have changed the paradigm in this country on wealth creation [and see] grandmothers retiring and going to Florida to the beach, spending more time with their grandchildren versus what we see right now largely in our community where we work until we die.”