Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1692-1972

Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1692-1972

Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1692-1972

Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories: The Cromwell Family in Slavery and Segregation, 1692-1972


When an industrious slave named Willis Hodges Cromwell earned the money to obtain liberty for his wife-who then bought freedom for him and for their children-he set in motion a family saga that resounds today. His youngest son, John Wesley Cromwell, became an educator, lawyer, and newspaper publisher-and one of the most influential men of letters in the generation that bridged Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois. Now, in Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories, his granddaughter, Adelaide M. Cromwell, documents the journey of her family from the slave marts of Annapolis to achievements in a variety of learned professions. John W. Cromwell began the family archives from which this book is drawn-letters and documents that provide an unprecedented view of how one black family thought, strived, and survived in American society from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. These papers reflect intimate thoughts about such topics as national and local leaders, moral behavior, color consciousness, and the challenges of everyday life in a racist society. They also convey a wealth of rich insights on the burdens that black parents' demands for achievement placed on their children, the frequently bitter rivalries within the intellectual class of the African American community, and the negative impact on African American women of sexism in a world dominated by black men whose own hold on respect was tentative at best. The voices gathered here give readers an inside look at the formation and networks of the African American elite, as John Cromwell forged friendships with such figures as journalist John E. Bruce and the Reverend Theophilus Gould Steward. Letters with those two faithfully depict the forces that shaped the worldview of the small but steadily expanding community of African American intellectuals who helped transform the nation's attitudes and policies on race, and whose unguarded comments on a wide range of matters will be of particular interest to social historians. Additional correspondence between John and his son, John Jr., brings the family story into modern times. Unveiled Voices, Unvarnished Memories is a rare look at the public and private world of individuals who refused to be circumscribed by racism and the ghetto while pursuing their own well-being. Its narrative depth breaks new ground in African American history and offers a unique primary source for that community.


This is the story of how one African American family and a key figure in that family, John Wesley Cromwell, my grandfather, established and maintained a network of family, friends, and associates through the years. It is also a testimony to the importance of the writing and keeping of letters.

Throughout his life, my grandfather kept most, if not all, of his correspondence, as well as a diary, a journal, newspaper clippings, and books. the ties with his family—his brothers, his father, and his children—were sustained through letters. These letters are written to him and, with supporting documentation, are exclusively concerned with family matters.

Included here also are other letters written to Grandfather that reveal his activities and concerns beyond the family. Chapters 8 and 9 contain selections of his extensive correspondence with John E. Bruce, a fellow journalist and amateur historian, and Theophilus Gould Steward, a clergyman, chaplain, and author.

In preserving these letters and in writing this book, I have tried to keep the faith of my great-grandfather, Willis Hodges Cromwell, my grandfather, John Wesley Cromwell Sr., and my aunt Otelia Cromwell. This has been a long journey, and for that reason, I am indebted to many, many people: my son, Anthony Cromwell Hill, for his informative and sensitive introduction to this work; William O. Banner, who has been my friend since we were students at Harvard, for critically reading the first part of the manuscript; and Michael R. Winston, the coauthor of the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, for reading the entire manuscript and offering many important suggestions for its improvement, which I have gratefully followed.

My indebtedness extends to numerous personal friends and professionals who responded to my requests for help: Edward Howell, Thelma Truitt Howell, my cousin Darrell R. Gordon, and Charles L. Blockson helped me in my descrip-

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