John Wesley Cromwell
September 5, 1846 – April 14, 1927
Notable: Educator and Activist
John Wesley Cromwell was born in Portsmouth, Virginia the youngest of Elizabeth and Hodges Cromwell’s children. (The total number of children and Cromwell’s position in the birth order are unclear as one source states they had seven children while another states they had 12.) Both of Cromwell’s parents were enslaved at the time of his birth but his parents managed to purchase their and their children’s freedom by 1850. After procuring their freedom, the family relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Cromwell enrolled at Bird’s Grammar School and later at the Institute for Colored Youth from which he graduated in 1864. He spent some time teaching in Colombia before returning to Portsmouth in 1865 where he operated a private school for part of the year. One source states that the school closed at least in part due to racist opposition to Black people being educated.
The first quarter of 1866 was spent in the employ of The Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People. But that job ended abruptly due to acts of terrorism likely motivated by him teaching and otherwise assisting Black people in the area. It was just a year after the end of the Civil War and Cromwell endured having someone shoot at him and the church where he taught being destroyed by a fire.
Over the next few years, Cromwell continued to move around Virginia for various teaching positions. He desired to help Black people achieve progress and believed education would be vitally important in the journey to reach that goal. During this period, Cromwell was also actively involved with the Republican Party.
In 1871, Cromwell moved once again, this time to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled at Howard University’s law school. A year later, he obtained a clerk position at the Treasury Department after passing the civil service exam. In 1874, Cromwell graduated and successfully passed the bar. He continued working in various positions at the Treasury Department and also at the U.S. Post Office until 1885.
Cromwell spent the next four years practicing law but as in the past returned to education. Over the next two decades he worked as a teacher or principal at various local public schools. During the 1870s, Cromwell was a member of several groups that were advocating for improved and increased educational opportunities for the Black community. He also began publishing a weekly newspaper that covered racial issues and discussed the humanities.
In the 1880s, Cromwell continued working as the paper’s editor and also wrote a few notable long format pieces. He also helped to establish several organizations focused on the Black community. Some organizations he founded include the National Colored Press Association, Virginia Educational and Historical Association, Bethel Literary and Historical Association, American Negro Academy, and Negro Book Collectors Exchange. He was also a member of the Banneker Industrial Education Association, National Conference of Colored Men of the United States, and Progressive Co-operative Society.
In addition to penning articles for his paper he also wrote essays and books on subjects related to education and history. Of particular note was his 1897 essay “The Chance for Skilled Negro Labor in the South” which celebrated the creation of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (Hampton University) and discussed the importance of creating such schools for the future of the Black community. His book The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent had an impact on Carter G. Woodson and influenced his creation of Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
As an educator who believed access to education would be vital to the progress of the Black community, Cromwell supported Booker T. Washington’s ideology around Black education. But in time, he came to disagree with Washington after realizing that sacrificing political power in exchange for access to an education and financial success was not a feasible solution for the Black community overcoming racism. He would would also maintain a close correspondence with Arturo Schomburg.
John Wesley Cromwell died at his home in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1927. His first marriage had produced seven children some of whom went on to achieve great things in their own right. Cromwell remarried about five years after the death of his first wife but that marriage produced no children.
- Gunter, Donald W. 2021. “John Wesley Cromwell (1846–1927).” Encyclopedia Virginia. December 22, 2021. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cromwell-john-wesley-1846-1927/.
- “John Wesley Cromwell Residence.” n.d. African American Heritage Trail. Accessed July 28, 2022. https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/john-wesley-cromwell-residence-african-american-heritage-trail.
- “John Wesley Cromwell · Virginia Changemakers.” n.d. Library of Virginia. Accessed July 28, 2022. https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/8.
- Salo, Jessica. 2019. “John Wesley Cromwell (1846-1927).” Blackpast.org. May 30, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wesley-john-cromwell-1846-1927/.
- Anne Spencer
- Janie Porter Barrett
- Maggie Lena Walker
- Charlotte Hawkins Brown
- bell hooks
- Nannie Helen Burroughs
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