Smith College’s first African-American faculty member dies at 99

  • Adelaide Cromwell receives an honorary degree during the 137th commencement ceremony at Smith College in Northampton on May 17, 2015. FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2019 1:41:35 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Adelaide Cromwell, the first-ever African-American faculty member at Smith College, died June 8 at the age of 99.

A longtime resident of Brookline, Cromwell was a sociologist who throughout her career focused her research on black leadership. She graduated from Smith College in 1940 before returning to teach sociology in 1945. Cromwell also co-founded Boston University’s African Studies Center in 1953 and founded the university’s African American Studies program in 1969.

“There was a general lack of knowledge and information about black peoples and their contributions to history and the world,” Louis Chude-Sokei, the director of BU’s African American Studies program, said in an online tribute posted by the university. “She was a leading figure in rectifying that via establishing the program … She was an expert on the black elite in America and in Africa.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1919, Cromwell hailed from a prominent family full of barrier-breaking men and women. 

Cromwell’s father was the first-ever black certified public accountant in Washington, and her aunt Otelia Cromwell was the first African-American student to graduate from Smith College, and later the first African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree from Yale University. Her cousin was the late U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who became the first African-American popularly elected to the Senate in 1967.

Cromwell wrote about the history of her family in one of her books: “Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1672-1972.”

“The story of the Cromwell family is one of slavery, emancipation, and freedom,” she wrote. “It has passed on by word of mouth but has been altered and expanded by the less romantic, irrefutable facts of accurate documentation.”

Cromwell took after her aunt Otelia, following her academic path from Washington to Northampton in 1936. 

Cromwell’s son, Anthony Cromwell Hill, wrote in the introduction of “Unveiled Voices” that his mother matriculated at Smith at the age of 16, graduating with honors four years later with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. While at Smith, he said, his mother’s interest in the family history led her to write a paper for a genetics class about the inheritance piebaldism — the rare genetic trait that can give someone patches of white hair and depigmented skin — in three generations of her family. The article was published her senior year in the Journal of Heredity, her son wrote, “a precocious beginning to her career in scholarship.”

Cromwell went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. And when she earned her doctorate from Radcliffe College in 1953, her dissertation was a sociological study of Boston’s African-American elites, which decades later became the book “The Other Brahmins: Boston’s Black Upper Class 1750–1950.”

Though Cromwell’s tenure as a faculty member as Smith was brief — she joined the BU faculty in 1950 — she kept a close relationship with the Northampton school throughout her life, attending many of the school’s annual Otelia Cromwell Day convocations.

It was during her first time hosting one of those convocations that current Smith College President Kathleen McCartney met Cromwell six years ago. McCarney told the Gazette that she was impressed with Cromwell’s “genuine and positive” nature, and with her humor.

In 2015, McCartney had the chance to give Cromwell an honorary degree — a moment she remembers fondly, in part because of the students’ reaction to Cromwell.

“I’ve never heard them applaud more loudly than they did for Adelaide Cromwell,” she said.

It was at that year’s graduation that Cromwell received her honorary degree, after which she addressed the audience.

“I think my father was very happy to have his only daughter go to Smith and teach at Smith,” Cromwell said during her speech. “It was an amazing graduation. But you know, I look around, and it would still be nice to see more African-American graduates.”

A memorial service for Cromwell is scheduled for Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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