Otelia Cromwell was born in Washington, D.C. in 1874, to Lucy McGuinn and John Wesley Cromwell, a lawyer, educator, and journalist. Otelia Cromwell’s mother died when she was 12, leaving her responsible for her five younger siblings. After graduating from high school, Otelia taught in the D.C. public schools while taking college courses at Howard University. In 1897 she transferred to Smith College. She graduated with a BA in 1900, becoming the College’s first African-American graduate.
After graduating from Smith, Cromwell returned to teaching in D.C.’s segregated public schools. She taught English, German, and Latin at the M Street High School and the Armstrong Manual Training School. While remaining in her teaching positions, she continued to pursue her own educational advancement. After attending summer sessions at Columbia University, she received her MA in 1910. She then took summer courses at the University of Chicago in 1915 and continued taking courses at Columbia University until 1920. Competent in French, German, and Latin, Cromwell sought out courses such as “Goethe’s Faust,” “The Medieval Drama,” and “Cicero.” With far more credits in her pocket than the average applicant, in 1922 Cromwell entered Yale’s PhD program in English at age 48. Yale was pleased to offer Cromwell an academic scholarship, and she reportedly “made a very favorable impression” while at Yale.
In 1926, Cromwell earned her Doctorate in English from Yale. Yale University Press published her dissertation, Thomas Heywood, Dramatist, A Study in the Elizabethan Drama of Everyday Life, in 1928. She went on to become a professor of English Language and Literature at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C., where she remained until 1944 when she retired.
Throughout her academic career, Cromwell worked to advance the cause of civil rights and racial and gender equality. In 1931 she was an editor of the pioneering text Readings From Negro Authors for Schools and Colleges, and in 1932 served on the board of directors of The Encyclopedia of the Negro as the only woman alongside W.E.B. DuBois. Her most significant scholarly work, The Life of Lucretia Mott, was published by Harvard University Press in 1958.
Her niece Adelaide Cromwell recalls that although Otelia Cromwell was “soft-spoken,” she “was headstrong and abided by a strict code of ethics and principles.” She was a lifelong member of the NAACP, refused to patronize stores that treated black customers poorly, and did not use public transportation because of segregated employment practices.
She received an honorary degree from Smith College in 1950. Cromwell passed away in her family home in 1972 at the age of 98.
Publications by Otelia Cromwell
- The Life of Lucretia Mott (Harvard University Press, 1958)
- Readings from Negro Authors: For Schools and Colleges (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931)
- Thomas Heywood, A Study in the Elizabethan Drama of Everyday Life (Yale University Press, 1928)
Publications on Otelia Cromwell
- Adelaide Cromwell, Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1692-1972, University of Missouri Press, 2007.
- Adelaide Cromwell, My Mothering Aunt: Otelia Cromwell, Smith College Class of 1900, Smith College Office of College Relations, 2010.