Speaking to Today: New Video Explores Life and Legacy of Otelia Cromwell

Otelia Cromwell, the first African American to graduate from Smith, was a quiet revolutionary, but a revolutionary nonetheless. Her willingness to cross boundaries in pursuit of excellence is a model for today’s students.

Those are among the themes of a new video documentary about Cromwell, who graduated from Smith in 1900 and went on to become a distinguished scholar, educator and advocate for social equality. She died in 1972 at the age of 98.

“The Life and Legacy of Otelia Cromwell,” a 16-minute video produced by Kate Lee, senior media producer in Educational Technology Services, will be shown for the first time on Thursday, Nov. 6, during the college’s 25th annual celebration of Otelia Cromwell Day.

Established by President Emerita Mary Maples Dunn in 1989, Otelia Cromwell Day is a time for campus-wide reflection and dialogue about diversity and race. Afternoon classes are cancelled so that students, faculty and staff can participate in workshops, panels and cultural events on those issues.

The new video, produced in cooperation with the Otelia Cromwell Day Committee, uses narration, interviews and archival materials to explore Cromwell’s life—and her legacy at Smith.

Committee member Kim Alston, program coordinator for the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at Smith, emphasized that while the video tells a story from the past, it also connects to the present.

“We want to help the community recognize the relevance of Otelia Cromwell Day,” Alston said. “It’s not just about history, but about how her life speaks to the issues of today.”

The “Life and Legacy” video will be shown during opening ceremonies for Otelia Cromwell Day on Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. in Sweeney Concert Hall.

President McCartney will offer welcoming remarks. The keynote address will be given by public radio journalist Michele Norris, creator of the Race Card Project, which asks participants to express their thoughts on race in a six-word sentence.

Other events on campus include poetry readings, a gallery talk and workshops on teaching and talking about race. A full schedule of Otelia Cromwell Day events is available online.

Pamela Nolan Young, former head of the Office of Institutional Diversity at Smith, led the effort to produce a video about Otelia Cromwell. Kate Lee said the production team interviewed more than a dozen people—including Cromwell’s 95-year-old niece, Adelaide, of Brookline, Mass.—during the 16 months they spent creating the video. Adelaide Cromwell graduated from Smith in 1940.

The production relies on photographs and documents from Adelaide Cromwell, the archives at Howard University, the Library of Congress and the Smith College Archives.

It also draws on reflections by several Smith faculty members about Otelia Cromwell’s legacy. Among them are Andrea Hairston, L. Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and professor of Afro-American studies—who narrates the video—Louis Wilson, professor of Afro-American studies, and Ginetta Candelario ’90, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies.

The video traces Cromwell’s life from her childhood in the 1870s to her emergence as a scholar and author. The eldest of six children of a Washington, D.C., family that valued education, she was put in charge of her siblings at age 12 after her mother died.

Cromwell excelled at her studies and graduated with honors from M Street High School, the nation’s leading black secondary school at the time. After graduating in 1891, she completed a two-year teacher certification program and taught primary and secondary students in the District before entering Smith in 1898.

At Smith, Cromwell was required to live off campus. After graduating in 1900, she pursued post-baccalaureate studies, earning a master’s degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in English from Yale in 1926. (Cromwell was also the first African American woman to receive a Yale degree).

In 1930, Cromwell was appointed professor of the Division of English Language and Literature at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C., a position she held until her retirement in 1944.

Cromwell’s most important scholarly work was Lucretia Mott, a book about the women’s rights activist published in 1958 that is still cited by contemporary academics.

Afro-American studies professor Wilson said participating in the video made him appreciate the courage Cromwell showed in pursuing an education at Smith in an era when there were few, if any, students of color on campus.

“What I realize is how much Otelia Cromwell gave up to come to a place like Smith that in many ways, felt foreign,” said Wilson, who has taught at the college for 25 years. “She came here for an education and to use that education to go out and do good. That’s still relevant today.”

Floyd Cheung, an associate professor of English language and literature who also appears in the video, said Cromwell’s attention to language—her ability to “choose the right words and live up to them”—was an important part of her character.

Cheung cited a 1944 article Cromwell wrote for the American Scholar called “Democracy and the Negro.” In it “she notes that politicians say World War II is being fought to defend ‘democracy,’” Cheung said. “But she points out that in light of injustices regarding race in America, we risk turning that ‘watchword’ into a mere ‘catchword.’”

Farah Pandith ’90 was the newly elected student government president in 1989 when the discovery of a racist note pinned to a student’s door led President Dunn to cancel classes and host campus-wide discussions that established Otelia Cromwell Day.

“That racial incident and all-college meeting changed the trajectory of my life,” said Pandith, who was the country’s first Special Representative to Muslim Communities and also appears in the new video.

Pandith—who will lead a talk during this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day celebrations—said she hopes the video will inspire students to learn from the past and see that activism can take many forms.

“A message from the film is that racism was present then and is now but people can choose how to address it,” Pandith said. “The day in Otelia Cromwell’s honor shows us that Smith moved forward from a negative experience to seed a new beginning.”

Associate professor Candelario, another alumna who was active on campus when the first Otelia Cromwell Day was established, said it’s important for the Smith community to continue exploring Cromwell’s legacy.

“The hope would be that you’d never again have to have an Otelia Cromwell Day. But the fact is, we all must continue this work and affirm a commitment to taking a hard look at ourselves,” Candelario said.