Otelia Cromwell Day: A Day of Remembrance

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Sable Liggera '17 Assistant News Editor 

Smith College celebrated its 25th annual Otelia Cromwell Day on Nov. 6, a day is set aside in remembrance of its namesake, Otelia Cromwell, who was the college’s first African American graduate.

Otelia Cromwell graduated from Smith in 1900 to pursue a career in education. She also received a Ph.D. from Yale, becoming its first African American female graduate. She then became a professor at the Miners Teachers College in Washington, D.C., where she taught English and eventually became the chair of the English department. After retiring from teaching, she wrote and published “The Life of Lucretia Mott,” a biography of the Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

President Mary Maple Dunns introduced Cromwell Day in 1998 in response to a series campus hate crimes. During the day, in honor of Cromwell’s achievements, all afternoon classes are canceled and instead the college hosts a number of workshops and lectures on issues of racial diversity and discrimination.

This year, Smith welcomed Michele Norris, the former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the 2014 Peabody Award winner, as its keynote speaker.  As part of the address, Andrea Hairston ’74 read Micky Finney’s poem “Maven.”

Finney, the 2011 winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, was commissioned by Smith to compose Maven, which she then presented at the college’s 2009 Otelia Cromwell Day. The poem illustrates aspects that Cromwell described as important to her sense of self while embedding them with quotes from Cromwell.

The meat of Norris’s address, however, was in her discussion of the Race Card Project, an exercise in which she asks people to condense their “thoughts, experiences, or observations about race into one sentence that only has six words.”

After Norris’s talk, members of the Smith faculty moderated and facilitated a number of discussions, workshops, and lectures on race and diversity. “Intergenerational Conversations” was a “reflection on present day issues from a broader social and historical context,” and how a “crisis turned into celebration.” This workshop discussed the experiences of alumnae and former Student Government Association President Farah Pandith ’90 in dealing with the aftermath of a racist note being posted to a student’s door — and how the circumstances resulted in campus-wide discussion and new dedication to promoting a safer campus as well as one dedicated to egalitarianism.