Speeches & Media
Cromwell Family Legacy of Excellence
Otelia and Adelaide set examples of dignity, leadership and academic achievement
Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2019
This year’s Otelia Cromwell Day celebration was the first for me without the inspiring presence of Otelia’s niece, Adelaide Cromwell ’40. Until her death in June, Adelaide was a steady presence and honored guest at many of our Otelia Cromwell Day convocations. She would have turned 100 years old in November; I had promised her a cake with 100 candles.
To understand Adelaide Cromwell and her legacy, one must first understand her beloved “Aunt Tee,” Smith’s first African American graduate, who paved a path for Adelaide at Smith and throughout her life.
Otelia Cromwell 1900 entered Smith in 1898 at the age of 24. Tuition cost $100. Room and board cost just $300—but Otelia never lived on campus. Instead, because of her race, she was required to board off campus in a private home on Round Hill Road. In her sophomore year, she moved to the home of a classics professor on West Street, so she could be closer to her academic endeavors.
“Otelia Cromwell came here to engage with her professors, to take advantage of the library, to take advantage of the facilities, to have a different view, a broader view of the world— but not to socialize,” observed Professor of Africana Studies Louis Wilson in a 2014 short film about Otelia Cromwell Day. “And she was not disappointed.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Smith in classical studies, Otelia Cromwell went on to receive a master’s from Columbia and a doctorate from Yale—the first doctoral degree awarded by Yale to an African American woman. Yale University Press published her dissertation, “Thomas Heywood, Dramatist, A Study in the Elizabethan Drama of Everyday Life.” She became a professor of English at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C. After her retirement in 1944, she wrote and published her most celebrated scholarly work, The Life of Lucretia Mott, a biography of the noted abolitionist and suffragist.
Adelaide, too, thrived academically. As recounted in her 2010 book, My Mothering Aunt: Otelia Cromwell, Adelaide entered Smith at age 16 as “the only black student in her class and was assigned to a dormitory where she was also the only black resident.” Otelia was a constant presence in Adelaide’s undergraduate life via regular, detailed letters that often accompanied gifts of clothes, small necessities and pocket money.
As Adelaide’s son, Tony Hill, recalled to me in a recent conversation, Adelaide’s entrance into Smith represented “the fulfillment of the family’s mandate.” She was to be “a first-class student at a first-class college,” as described in Adelaide’s memoir, free of financial concerns as much as possible. Aunt Tee was especially attentive to the importance of self-presentation at Smith. Adelaide explained in My Mothering Aunt, “While the family, aunts and parents, underwrote all of Adelaide’s college expenses, Aunt Tee alone provided her wardrobe.” In fact, Otelia made most of Adelaide’s clothes herself. “One must look as well as act the part of a Smith College student,” Adelaide recalled her aunt telling her.
After graduating from Smith, Adelaide earned a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, a certificate in social work from Bryn Mawr College and a doctorate from Radcliffe College of Harvard University. In the 1940s she was the first African American instructor at Hunter College and the first African American on the faculty at Smith. In 1951, she joined the faculty at Boston University, where she served for 34 years, founding the university’s African American studies program and co-founding its African Studies Center. She wrote five books during her career, the best known of which is The Other Brahmins: Boston’ Black Upper Class 1750–1950.
Because of the paths that Otelia and Adelaide forged, women of color at Smith and at colleges and universities around the country are part of a legacy of black excellence. “This is not about one culture,” Lisa Daniels ’12 reflected in the 2014 film about Otelia Cromwell. “This is not about one race. This is not about one person in particular. You exist here because she was here. We are all part of her legacy in one form or fashion—through race, through class, through culture, through being women in the world trying to be leaders in our own lives and in our own communities.”
In 1950, during celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of Smith’s founding, the college awarded Otelia Cromwell an honorary doctor of laws degree. Twenty-one years later, Adelaide Cromwell received the Smith College Medal. And in 2015, I had the privilege of recognizing Adelaide’s achievements with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
This year, we announced further recognition for Otelia and Adelaide’s important—and connected—legacies. A new fellowship, known as the Cromwell Research Fellowship, will be administered by the Africana studies department and will support students doing advanced work in areas close to Adelaide’s heart. Further, at the suggestion of her son, we will rename our annual celebration Cromwell Day. The change honors the profound legacy the Cromwell family has left at Smith College. Like so many of you, I will miss Adelaide Cromwell every year, especially on the day that bears her family name.