John Wesley Cromwell, Black Educator Hall of Fame

E’ry day this month, the Center for Black Educator Development, in partnership with, will highlight a Black Educator Hall of Famer.

But, don’t forget, e’ry month is Black History Month. February is just the Blackest.

Today, our featured Black educator is John Wesley Cromwell.

John Wesley Cromwell was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on September 5, 1846. He was born enslaved to Willis and Elizabeth Cromwell. The family moved to West Philadelphia in 1850 as a result of Willis, who was a carpenter and freight transporter. After convincing his captor B. W. Dobson to purchase his wife, Dobson freed her and with Willis’ earnings, she paid for the freedom of their seven children and Willis at the combined total of $3,250.

Once in Philadelphia, John Wesley Cromwell attended Bird’s Grammar School at the age of ten and the Institute for Colored Youth in 1856. With a score of 8.91/10 on his final examinations, he graduated second in his class of ten. After graduating in 1864 with a cash prize for superiority in Greek and Latin studies, Cromwell took a teaching job in Columbia, Pennsylvania. However, the school closed down. His next move was opening a private school for newly freed men in his native Portsmouth, at the age of eighteen.

After turning the school over to the American Missionary Association, Cromwell found work teaching in Maryland with the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People. Sadly, he came under the threat of gunfire, and the school where he taught in Maryland was burned down… all this likely at the hands of white supremacists. After, Cromwell took teaching positions in North Carolina and Virginia.

Believing strongly in the importance of education for African Americans, Cromwell declared that he desired “to assist in the elevation of my own down-trodden, unfortunate, illiterate yet not God-forsaken people.” Between his teaching career and his deep interest in literature, Cromwell identified a hole in American education, one in which African American children “learn little or nothing of their kith or kin that is meritorious or inspiring.”

To that end, Cromwell wrote The Negro in American Historypublished in 1914 which, the Journal of Negro History reviewed as a “very important work”. The text was so powerful, that it influenced Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s creation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

In addition to his work as an educator, Cromwell received his law degree from Howard University in 1873 and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1874. After graduating from Howard, he helped organize the People’s Advocate, a weekly newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, which he eventually moved to Washington, D.C. in 1877. For a brief time, Cromwell practiced law, was a chief examiner for the Post Office, served in Republican Party politics, and formed the American Negro Academy, dedicated to the education of Black people.

In 1887, Revered William J. Simmons compiled Men of Mark, a collection of biographies of the Bcommunity’s most notable men, including Frederick Douglass, Crispus Attucks, William Still, Benjamin Banneker, and Henry Highland Garnet. Of Cromwell, Simmons described him as:

“… a walking English library and encyclopedia… If you ask me for the best English scholar in the United States I would unhesitatingly refer you to John Wesley Cromwell, nor do I except any white man, woman, or child.”

John Wesley Cromwell, father of John Wesley Cromwell, Jr., a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.

For more information on John Wesley Cromwell, visit the following site.


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