This 1900 yearbook photo of Cromwell, Smith's first African-American graduate, and other documents about her life are housed in the College Archives.
Otelia Cromwell is the first known African-American student to graduate from Smith College. Cromwell transferred to Smith in her junior year from Howard University in 1898. She lived with professor of Greek, Julia Caverno, a member of the class of 1887, on Roundhill Road and later at 275 Main Street. After receiving advanced degrees from Columbia and Yale University she returned to Washington, D.C. to supervise teachers of English and history in the public schools. Eventually, she was appointed professor of English at Miner Teachers College. Cromwell was a prolific writer about education, publishing many articles in scholarly journals. She edited Readings from Negro Authors, one of the first anthologies of the literary contributions of African-American writers. Late in her life her biography of Lucretia Mott was published by Harvard University Press.
Otelia Cromwell was awarded an Honorary degree at Smith College in 1950 during the Anniversary celebration of the College. The story of her nomination began 10 years earlier with a nomination from a textbook salesman who knew Cromwell well. When Cromwell's nomination was rejected that year, Julia Caverno and members of the Class of 1900 continued to press for her nomination throughout the 1940s. On June 5, 1950 she received an honorary LLD. Her citation reads:
"She returns to Smith College with a rich and satisfying record of achievement in the teaching of English literature and the supervision of secondary education...As teacher and as scholar she has communicated to her students a perceptive appreciation of literature, has led through her own insight to a better knowledge of themselves, their talents and potentialities, and by example even more than by precept has demonstrated that the fundamental values of scholarship are also those of humane living--integrity, tolerance, and sympathetic understanding." [Honorary degree citation read by Benjamin F. Wright] Otelia Cromwell died in 1972.
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. Afternoon and evening classes are cancelled, but the Libraries will remain open.
Gay’s work garners international acclaim for its reflective, no-holds-barred exploration of feminism and social criticism.
Learn more about Otelia Cromwell Day, and see the complete event schedule.