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Otelia Cromwell Day

Otelia Cromwell


Otelia Cromwell Day provides dedicated time and space for reflection and education about diversity, racism and inclusion. Through this work, we seek to take individual and community responsibility for our behavior with an awareness of how it furthers and disrupts patterns of structural oppression. Otelia Cromwell Day is also an important way for us to remember, honor and celebrate the legacy of Otelia Cromwell herself, recognizing her courage and strength, and place in history as Smith’s first African-American graduate.

Otelia Cromwell Day 2018

This year's Otelia Cromwell Day, with the theme “Healing and Resistance Through Community,” was held Thursday, November 1. 

Keynote Address: “(Re)Living Hope”

This year's keynote speaker, Dafina-Lazarus (D-L) Stewart, professor at Colorado State University's School of Education, spoke on “(Re)Living Hope.” The present times offer many challenges to maintaining hope as we are inundated with reports of persistent failures to honor human dignity. In this talk, Stewart discussed the importance of Freire’s notion of “critical hope,” where hope should be laid, and what this all means for community.


“The Life and Legacy of Otelia Cromwell” was part of the college's 25th annual celebration honoring Smith’s first African American graduate.

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 doctorate. 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, then president of Smith, 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.