Hazel Rodney Blackman was a Jamaican-born American fashion designer, quilter, and painter. She is best known for introducing African fabrics into American fashion in the 1960s and 1970s.
Early life and education
Hazel Blackman was born Hazel Hyscinth Rodney in Kingston, Jamaica in 1921, to George and Alphasenia Rodney. She was the third of eleven children, including brothers Winston, Neville, Karl and sisters Ivy, Joyce, Winifred and Marcia. She grew up on Slipe Pen Road, in the city’s Cross Roads Neighborhood. In that neighborhood, she often encountered Marcus Garvey and members of his Universal Negro Improvement Association, whose headquarters were at nearby Edelweiss Park. Her grandfather, George Rodney, owned stock in Garvey’s Black Star Line, a connection that would surface in her later work Blackman described her mother as a great sewer.
In 1940, Blackman moved from Jamaica to New York to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion in Manhattan. After she graduated, in 1946, she worked as a seamstress, private dressmaker, and sample maker on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. By the time she struck out on her own, in 1965 she had become an assistant designer. During her years working in the garment district, she continued to take classes, including on jewelry-making, painting on fabrics, and glove-making.
Blackman began quilting after a trip to Alabama in the 1960s, where she made designs for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a quilting cooperative, and in the process was inspired to take up the craft herself. Decades later, she helped found the New York chapter of the Women of Color Quilters Network.
In a 2005 interview, Blackman said, “to make a dynamic quilt is like a dance,” and reflected that “making quilts is the last of my episode.” She made several story quilts, including ones that depicted Jamaican history, such as her quilt “The Black Star Liner,” which shows a ship from Marcus Garvey’s shipping company. Her quilt, “Unity of the Mind,” which depicts Garvey and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, is in the collection of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, a museum in Kingston.
Poetry and prose
One of Blackman’s quilts is featured on the cover of Patchwork: Poetry & Prose and Papers & Pictures Anthology book (1999) by Dale Benjamin Drakeford. Several of Blackman’s original poems are featured in the anthology. Blackman also wrote an unpublished autobiography titled My Romance with Paint and Fabrics.
Blackman returned to Jamaica after living decades in the Bronx, New York, then in Tampa, Florida. She died at 93 and is buried at Dovecot Memorial Park in Kingston, Jamaica.