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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 Delivers 2017 Keynote Address

Author and cultural critic Roxane Gay delivered the keynote address at 2017’s Otelia Cromwell Day ceremony, Thursday, November 2, 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.

Otelia Cromwell Day is sponsored by the Otelia Cromwell Day Committee with the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity; the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life; the music department; the president’s office; the provost’s office; the Student Event Committee; and college relations.


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, co-chair
  • Samuel Masinter
  • Amy Olson ’20
  • Paige Pryor ’20
  • L’Tanya Richmond
  • Mariana Estrella Rivera AC’16
  • Cai Sherley ’19
  • Robert Simmons
  • Dominique Straughn-Turner ’20
  • Johanna Walter
  • Ellen Doré Watson
  • Traci Williams AC ’18J
  • Louis Wilson
  • Nanci Young
  • Tina Zaengle