Activist and scholar, J. Blaine Hudson, dies

J. Blaine Hudson’s deep, wise voice carried like the gentle turn of a page. When he spoke, people listened, be it a room full of college students, average citizens or political leaders. This past week, the longtime educator, activist, scholar, and leading voice in Louisville’s African-American community died at just 63 years old.

Ricky Jones grew close with Hudson upon taking a job at University of Louisville’s Pan-African Studies Department in 1996, a department Hudson helped build. (In addition to working as a professor, Jones writes a column for LEO.)

“The man was like a father to me. I haven’t cried so much since my grandmother died in 2009,” Jones says. “He was … incredibly smart. But at the same time not full of himself at all, incredibly humble, incredibly accessible.”

Many academics insulate themselves, says Jones, burying their lives in research and the quest for grant money and publication. Not Hudson.

A Male High School graduate, Hudson earned a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1981 and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Louisville.

His rise to acting-dean of the University of Louisville’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2004, and ultimately permanent dean in 2005, may have seemed unlikely back in 1969. That year, he was arrested after protesting in that very office, demanding greater opportunities for black students and faculty. Hudson was expelled but later able to return.

During his tenure as dean, Hudson developed 12 new degree programs, increased international opportunities for students, and helped grow graduation rates. Of the 36 Fulbright Scholars from U of L since 2010, 30 were Arts and Sciences majors.

Hudson also played an integral role in the formation of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research. Cate Fosl, the institute’s director, says that while Hudson had not been on campus this past fall following cranial surgery, his absence leaves a “strange feeling.”

“It’s an unimaginable loss,” says Fosl, who admired Hudson’s commitment to social justice issues, like Louisville’s persistent neighborhood segregation. Fosl says the Anne Braden Institute has the last recorded interview with Hudson, completed right before his leave of absence from U of L this past summer. In it, he discusses housing discrimination in Louisville. She says that interview, along with his books, like “Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A Photographic History,” which he co-authored, will help keep Hudson’s legacy alive with “the record of his knowledge.”

Hudson, a renowned researcher and author who racked up many prestigious awards, including the 2002 Marin Luther King Dream Award, had opportunities to leave. But the man who grew up on Madison Street in west Louisville stayed.

“He never told me this point blank,” Fosl says, “but it seems so evident to me that he stayed out of his deep devotion to this campus and this city.”

Hudson’s Saturday Academy, formed in 1990, exhibited that loyalty. The free, public classes focused on African culture and African-American history. Within the last year, Hudson’s post as chairman of Mayor Greg Fischer’s violence prevention work group also highlighted a desire to better his hometown. (He ultimately stepped down from that position due to his illness, the details of which have not been disclosed by family.)

“Nobody can name another person in this community, especially in the African-American community, that has that skill set and that dedication, not in one person,” Jones says. “And that’s not overstating it at all.”

Many will remember Hudson as a mentor, including Tomarra Adams, who has known Hudson for 20 years. She’s the director of undergraduate studies in the Pan-African Studies Department, as well as the assistant dean at U of L’s College of Arts and Sciences. In an email to LEO two days after Hudson’s death, Adams described him as a father figure.

“Although I honor his work and commitment to the community, his legacy for me is the compassion he had for people in the community and their potential. What has made him so very loved is his ability to see the strength in people and his selflessness in grooming them to take the lead. His belief has been that you always develop young scholars to take your place. I never experienced anyone else who so passionately paved the road of opportunity and success for other people without concern of what it meant to him and his career … He was strategic and political, but never forced anyone to think his way — but simply believed if you present the facts without the emotional charge, you can help people make good decisions.

I told my class today, how great Dr. Hudson has been to me and our community. We now stand on his shoulders. It is our responsibility to carry forward his vision for social justice, equity, and develop our rising scholars.”

In his obituary, Hudson’s family asks anyone wishing to honor Hudson’s life do so with a contribution to U of L’s Pan-African Studies Department.

The University of Louisville plans to hold a celebration of his life Monday, Jan. 14 at 3:00 in the afternoon at the Brown & Williamson Club at Papa John’s Stadium. They’ve also created a special site for anyone wanting to share their memories. Here’s a link.

In the hours after Hudson’s death, both Mayor Fischer and U of L President James Ramsey issued statements. Both can be read below.

Mayor Greg Fischer:

“Dr. Hudson was a true public servant who cared deeply about Louisville and its people. He understood the city’s history, and he selflessly shared his learnings and insights from both an academic and real-life perspective. Though he grew up in times of racial segregation, his entire life was spent helping bridge racial divides, from his work at the University of Louisville to his Saturday Academy to his book about African-American History in Louisville to his most recent work serving as co-chair of the city’s violence prevention work group. He leaves a deep and lasting legacy and our city is grateful for his life.”

U of L President James Ramsey:

“Blaine’s many years and contributions as a faculty member, department chair and dean has had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on generations of U of L students. Blaine was a visionary and leader in the academy and the community. He will be missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

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