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Otelia Cromwell Day

Otelia Cromwell


Otelia Cromwell Day is an annual slate of workshops, lectures, films and entertainment to honor Smith’s first African American graduate. The first Otelia Cromwell Day was held in 1989 to provide the college community with an opportunity for further education and reflection about issues of diversity and racism.

Roxane Gay to Deliver Keynote Address

Author and cultural critic Roxane Gay will deliver the keynote address at this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day ceremony, Thursday, November 2, at 1 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall.

Gay’s work garners international acclaim for its reflective, no-holds-barred exploration of feminism and social criticism. With a deft eye on modern culture, she brilliantly critiques its ebb and flow with both wit and ferocity. Her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is considered the quintessential exploration of modern feminism. NPR named it one of the best books of the year and Salon declared the book “trailblazing.” Her debut novel, An Untamed State, was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. In 2017, Gay released her memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, as well as a collection of short stories titled Difficult Women.

Gay is a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times and has served as the co-editor of PANK and nonfiction editor at The Rumpus. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nation and many other publications. She recently became the first black woman to write for Marvel, creating a comic series in the Black Panther universe called World of Wakanda.

The theme of this year’s event is “Resist, Act and Persevere.” Afternoon and evening classes are not held on Otelia Cromwell Day.

About Otelia Cromwell Day

Otelia Cromwell Day is named for the first African American to graduate from Smith College. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1874, Otelia Cromwell was the first of six children born to Lucy McGuinn and John Wesley Cromwell, a journalist, educator and the first African American to practice law with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Otelia Cromwell's life and work were characterized by a deep sense of justice and responsibility toward others, a quality that was reinforced when her mother died in 1886 when Otelia was 12, leaving her in charge of her younger siblings.

After graduating from the Miner Normal School, Otelia Cromwell taught in the Washington, D.C., public schools for several years. She transferred to Smith College in 1898 and graduated in 1900. She returned to teaching for a number of years and then resumed her education, receiving a master of arts from Columbia University and a doctorate from Yale University in 1926. Cromwell was the first African American woman to receive a Yale degree. She soon became professor and chair of the department of English language and literature at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C.

Cromwell remained at Miner Teachers College until her retirement in 1944. A distinguished scholar and teacher, she authored three books and numerous articles including Readings From Negro Authors, for Schools and Colleges, the result of collaboration with Eva B. Dykes and Lorenzo Dow Turner. It was one of the first collections of its kind. She received an honorary degree from Smith College in 1950.

After her retirement from teaching, Cromwell accomplished her most significant scholarly work, The Life of Lucretia Mott, the Quaker abolitionist and women's rights activist. It was published in 1958 by Harvard University Press and continues to be cited by contemporary scholars. Cromwell passed away in 1972 at the age of 98.

Mary Maples Dunn, president emerita of Smith College, initiated Otelia Cromwell Day in 1989 in an effort to provide the college community with an opportunity for further education and reflection about issues of diversity and racism.

Otelia Cromwell Day Committee 2017

  • Kim Alston, co-chair
  • Joanne Benkley
  • Razi Beresin-Scher ’20
  • Denise Brown
  • Matilda Rose Cantwell
  • Ryenne Carpenter ’19
  • Dwight Hamilton, co-chair
  • Amanda Huntleigh
  • Natalie James
  • Queen Lanier
  • Merrilyn Lewis
  • Samuel Masinter, co-chair
  • Amy Olson ’20
  • Paige Pryor ’20
  • L’Tanya Richmond
  • Mariana Estrella Rivera AC’16
  • Cai Sherley ’19
  • Rob Simmons
  • Dominique Straughn-Turner ’20
  • Johanna Walter
  • Ellen Doré Watson
  • Traci Williams AC
  • Nanci Young
  • Tina Zaengle

Maven, by Nikky Finney

Smith College commissioned award-winning poet Nikky Finney to compose a poem in honor of Otelia Cromwell. Finney recited the poem, "Maven," during the Otelia Cromwell Day convocation November 10, 2009.

For Otelia Cromwell, 1874–1972

Genus: Daughter

"When you are a thinking woman neither violence or sugar plums can muzzle the power of thought."

Imagine, hatch, comprehend, apprehend:
Know the inside and the out. You are just
a girl when your mother dies. Left to tend
the rest of the flock, you, the oldest,
the one most like your father, taught
to leave no stone unturned, marry thrift
and industry, while burying your head
in the stacks. Sang-froid but never
silent. Inquire, picture, ponder, think
over, think and think, again. Giddy
with your own mind, "Master everything"
is the family crest, no veil feigning, faking,
guise, masquerade, or fanfare. There is
a right way and a wrong. When you give
your hand to the world, your responsibility:
To have a mind, keep in mind, change
a mind—and be the last to die.

Genus: Scholar

"An educated group is a thinking group."

Intuit, divine, check and recheck, invent:
Know the backward and the forward.
You care nothing for the popular, even
less for the slipshod. Your arms flower
with all the leading out books, choosing
wisely what and who trains you: Frankness,
virtuoso, mastery, crackerjack. Think and
think, again. You leave college and university
exceptionally prepared. You are complex
and astute, as calm as a comma. No time
for jewelry or parlor beaus. There is
a gold watch, a signet ring, a Smith
College pin: White letters on gold just
above the heart. Diligent, proficient, self-
possessed, you weigh in with words, to state
your tolerance to the inefficient. You never
back down from what is right. Young Adelaide
is your "dependable" and the 9th graders
leaning in to your instruction whisper: This
must be college. You gray beautifully—but early.

Genus: Writer

"The genius does not write to please."
               (nor live to marry)

Veritas. Words pulled through a fine-tooth
comb, then, before sleep, pulled through,
again. You refuse to segregate language from
life, read German for sport and swing golf
clubs just to stay on the qui vive. You write
of the legality of taxes, pica out democracy,
vow and edit for the intergral Negro intellectual.
Winnow, probe, sift through, quest: Think
and think, again. Solemnly engaged now to
Lucretia & Thomas, you dislike being called
"Dr." and remain forever keen on "Miss."
What the dutiful trained hand can perfectly
stitch delights you. Unconventional and easy-
going, your desire never wanes: To be put
through the paces, edify, enlighten, to work
outward—from simple seam to monogram.
We herald your bright hallmark of firsts,
those sprightly high-waisted truths; the soft-
spoken whippersnapper, eloping still.

All words in italics are the words of Otelia Cromwell.
©2009 Nikky Finney.