Having been a taxi driver long before he taught English at Boston College, Henry Blackwell offered encouragement to students who had not seen their own potential, and he inspired them to beat the odds like he did.
“It was so striking that he was the only full-time professor of color at the time,” said Marc Onion, a former student of Dr. Blackwell, who was the first African-American faculty member in BC’s English department. “It was relieving to be so represented in the faculty.”
Dr. Blackwell, who taught at Boston College for 32 years, died Sept. 28 in a Savannah, Ga., nursing home following complications of a stroke and diabetes. He was 76 and formerly lived in Framingham.
“He was a magnificent teacher inside the classroom, as well as outside the classroom,” said John Mahoney, an English professor emeritus at Boston College who worked with Dr. Blackwell for many years.
Their offices were next door to one another, so the two often chatted during the day.
“Students admired that what they found in him was a strong, gracious, demanding teacher, who was a role model for them,” Mahoney said.
Although Dr. Blackwell focused on African-American literature, “he had a wide-ranging sense of the whole literary experience,” Mahoney said.
Dr. Blackwell, he said, was “able, scholarly, a critic, someone who cared about education, not in the abstract, but in the reality of living students.”
Robin Lydenberg, an English professor at Boston College, was on the faculty with Dr. Blackwell for more than 30 years and considered him the conscience of the English department.
“He was always the one who didn’t let things get swept under the rug,” Lydenberg said. “He really pushed us to face up to difficult issues, and he had a tremendous ethical and philosophical mind.”
Although Dr. Blackwell spent decades discussing similar topics, Lydenberg said, he brought a fresh feel to each year’s classes.
“Even after 30 years of teaching he was not coasting on old notes,” Lydenberg said. “He was very much focused on the students and identified with students who didn’t recognize how smart they were, or how much potential they had. He would really go after them hard.”
Born in Baltimore, Dr. Blackwell skipped a few grades along the way before enrolling at 15 in Howard University in Washington.
He was a taxi driver when he started a family with his first wife, Barbara. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Driving a cab did little to fulfill his thirst for literary knowledge and his desire to write, so he took night classes at what was then Morgan State College in Baltimore. Granted a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, he attended the University of Chicago, from which he received a master’s degree and a doctorate.
“Beyond being a workaholic, he just could not do anything sort of halfway,” said his wife, Carol, whom Dr. Blackwell met while teaching English at the University of Connecticut. They married in 1975.
At Boston College, Dr. Blackwell taught African-American literature, American literature, and cultural studies.
When he was not scrupulously preparing class lessons or reviewing the work of his students, Dr. Blackwell played tournament chess and enjoyed Asian cuisine, his wife said, but his chief passion was literature.
Onion, who graduated in 1993, met Dr. Blackwell during his freshman year when he took a survey course in African-American writing. Describing himself as “less than determined,” Onion said that Dr. Blackwell quickly challenged him to be better.
“In class, he was captivating,” Onion said. Over time, he said, Dr. Blackwell became a father figure.
“He was just warm,” Onion said, “not quick to volunteer information about his own life, but I developed a real comfort, so I was not afraid to ask. He had a sense of humor, which I think for most undergraduates was a bit of a secret. You would get slashes of it if you met with him in his office, but in class he could be rigidly serious.”
During Onion’s senior year, he asked for a letter of recommendation for law school. Dr. Blackwell had other ideas.
“He flat out told me no,” Onion said. “He told me that the world didn’t need any more attorneys and that I needed to go to graduate school and pursue some sort of literature degree.”
Onion ended up graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in English education and now teaches at a high school in New Jersey.
“Without Henry, I’d probably be working in a cubicle in lower Manhattan or more firmly committed to pursuing law school,” Onion said.
Though working in different states, Onion and Dr. Blackwell stayed in touch.
“Throughout my adulthood, Henry pretty much functioned as a surrogate dad,” Onion said. “I would e-mail, phone him, send him letters.”
Toward the end of his life, Dr. Blackwell studied and prepared presentations about Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright. Dr. Blackwell also examined Dunbar’s private library of books filled with annotations and marginalia.
A service has been held for Dr. Blackwell, who, in addition to his wife, leaves two children from his previous marriage, Henry Jr. and Alison Blackwell Byrd; a stepdaughter, Ann Goldstone; six siblings; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Lydenberg said that Dr. Blackwell encouraged students to strive to achieve academically and that “he was very much directed outward and noticing sort of who needed attention or mentoring.”
Dr. Blackwell especially enjoyed crafting detailed introductions for the guest speakers he welcomed to his classroom, Lydenberg said.
When the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks gave a reading for his class, Dr. Blackwell exclaimed that he wished he could dance across the stage like Michael Jackson to celebrate her arrival.
“He had an enthusiasm for the work of other people and wanted to recognize other people’s brilliance in the most respectful way,” Lydenberg said.