Otelia Cromwell

Otelia Cromwell Day

Otelia Cromwell
Otelia Cromwell, first African American Smith College graduate.

 Otelia Cromwell Day is a Smith College community-wide celebration. Being first to do something and inclusion are the ongoing themes. Traditionally, Fall classes are cancelled and an annual slate of workshops, lectures, films and entertainment are convened to honor Smith’s first African American graduate. New York City Smith College alums gathered on November 4, 2017 to celebrate Dr. Cromwell’s legacy.

Recent campus keynote speakers have included: Roxane Gay, writer-professor; Sonia Sanchez, poet/arts activist; and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, economist-commentator.

Black Alumnae of Smith College (BASC), the College’s first Affinity group, collaborated with the local Smith College Club of New York City to host the event that attracted over 70 alums. To see photos and video highlights, click here.

Prof. Elizabeth Pryor, keynote speaker.

 This year was New York City’s second Otelia Cromwell Day. We were honored to feature keynote speakers Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Smith Professor of History and Dr. Carla Shedd, Smith alum, Class of 2000, Professor of Urban Education, City University of New York. Their book signing was a double highlight: Smith College Professor of History, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor (daughter of Richard Pryor, noted American comedian) is author of ‘Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War,’ (University of North Carolina Press, 2016); and Dr. Carla Shedd, Professor of Urban Education, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of ‘Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice,’ (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015). Last year’s (2016) NYC keynote speakers were Smith Professors Paula Giddings and Riché Daniel Barnes.

Dr. Carla Shedd, keynoted Otelia Cromwell Day 2017.

Background: The first ‘official’ Otelia Cromwell Day was held in 1989 to provide the Smith community with an opportunity for further education and reflection about racism and diversity.

However, 1970s black students started the ‘original’ Otelia Cromwell recognition. Their campus activism on racism, recruitment, and retention, are still important issues today!

My classmates in the class of 1974, the largest class of Black students, considered the question: “If we are the largest black group, who was the first? Our research led to the discovery of Otelia Cromwell and other distinguished nineteenth century African American students! The 70s black students were the first to start the ‘Otelia Society.’ We designed and wore T-shirts with imprints of Otelia Cromwell’s photo.

“People who end up as the ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be the first. They set out to do something they love.” Condoleessa ‘Condi’ Rice.

Were you the first to do something? Please share!



Back to Food


Back to food is a return to love and family. My parent’s Brooklyn brownstone was on the “over-ground railroad.’ How America’s largest migration happened was “over-ground,” according to The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Recently I asked my brother if he ever wondered why all of those people lived with us when we were growing up. “I thought it was normal,” he said. Back then, in the 50s and 60s, it was normal for strangers to stay in your home. Racial segregation was lawful. Black folks rarely stayed in hotels or ate in restaurants! We used the Green Book to find safe places when traveling. My paternal grandmother’s Rockaway summer resort ‘The Cherokee,’ was listed in that directory! Click here to see samples.

Ms. Wilkerson’s book helped me realize the moral, historical and political context of my parent’s humble home. Their Southern and island hospitality was about love and caretaking. For years we welcomed many hopeful travelers—from the Deep South, Caribbean, Central America, and Africa. My Guyanese maternal grandfather sponsored several of our foreign student boarders. We even adopted a few white radicals from Ireland! Me, my siblings and parents crowded into rooms on cots and bunk beds to accommodate elders, married couples, artists, maids, porters, nurses, teachers, and assorted extended family—‘cousins of your grandmother’s best friend, and your aunt’s white husband’s cousins from Ireland.”


At The Table: Everything centered at the dining table. Our galley kitchen could feed an army but seated only a few. My Mississippi father was a professional baker. My Trinidadian mother was a serial entrepreneur: SuSu banker, daycare center owner, tailor, and caterer. She also held a day job at a local hospital. Southern and Afro-Asian-Indo Caribbean Diaspora food was our general menu. Besides eating, the dining table was a place for storytelling, activism, celebrations, doing homework, and more. I wish today’s youth could benefit from the daily meals and conversations my generation experienced! The dining table was also where we learned culture and home training–table manners, discipline, proper order, behavior and language.


Cooking Genes: A seat at our table was a boisterous, multi-lingual place where West Indian English, Ebonics, Spanish, Chinese, Patois, and Louisiana Creole were spoken. Jazz, blues, Gospel and classical piano and vocals, Calypso records, folk music, tap dancing, radio shows, and Red Fox comedy albums, were normal sounds at home. Our home was also a rehearsal studio with four pianos, an extension of my paternal grandmother’s Harlem music schools. Those colorful, diverse long-term guests shared food, tall tales, talents, garden tips, health remedies, and a strong work ethic. Food aromas were constant. Everyone seemed born with cooking genes. Callaloo, Curries, Rotis, Buss-Up Shot, Gumbo, Beans and Rice, Potato Salad, Peach Cobbler, and Sweet Potato Pie, were standard fare. Every bowl of food provided a history lesson about slavery, colonialism, migration, and  immigration. Each cook owned their unique culinary skills, techniques, and preparation styles. I have eaten many types of fried chicken, gumbo, beans and rice, curries, pies and cakes. ‘Soul’ food deserves more respect in the cuisine world. For a fresh perspective on cooking genes, check my friend’s new book called #TheCookingGene by Michael W. Twitty. Click here for more information.


Cooking Lessons: Sometimes our guests cooked their own tribe foods. But most times my parents, both home chefs, cooked daily meals. My Trinidadian cousin Sandy and I learned to cook by doing. We grated coconuts to make real coconut milk. We made thousands of Jamaican meat and veggie patties! We used upside down teacups as cookie cutters to make the pastry patties that were filled with deliciousness. As a baker’s daughter I grew up playing with dough. I learned to cook Creole Southern and Chinese-Caribbean meals by observing and assisting in the kitchen. We were a loud, crazy-mixed-up family that attracted nosy neighbors. They were happy to receive tasty bribes to go away! But they always came back for more.

Happy Tuesdays: Back to earth! With anxieties about hurricanes and immigrant children getting deported, I need Tuesdays– my new happy day! That’s when my local CSA- Community Supported Agriculture, kicks in (blue tent in photo). For the next 10 weeks, Farmer Pedro & Family @LaBarajaFarm will deliver produce from their land in Goshen, just fifty miles away. A recent delivery included: carrots, beets, red onion, celery, potatoes, corn, kale, tomatoes, lemon grass, and peaches!


To learn more about CSA, click here. Actually, we are taking in too much food for two people. So, my husband and I share with friends and family. In addition, we get more food from my local senior center. They offer veggie bags for $8! Thank you to Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President. To learn more about NYC senior veggie bags, click here.

To see what I’m cooking, check Silvera88, my Instagram page, and SilverGingko, Food is Culture, my Pinterest page. I try to embrace a full food spectrum: food is love, food=culture, food is medicine, food social justice, gardening and sustainable agriculture.

In the Garden: I’m grateful that my tiny garden, assorted containers on the roof, is alive with growth. A surprise bloom, buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies, chirping birds, wild weeds, are simple things that inspire me. Jamaica Kincaid’s book ‘My Garden Book’ is one of my favorite garden books. To check it out, click here.

What are your favorite books about gardens, food, or farms?

#openletters to bill maher

Open Letters to Bill Maher from 2 Women: 1 Black, 1 White

‘Open Letters to Bill Maher for Calling Himself a ‘House N-word’ from 2 Women: 1 Black, 1 White’  sprang from conversations between two friends, Sylvia Wong Lewis and Elizabeth Sturges Llerena. Both are active in Coming to the Table, a national community organization that helps those who acknowledge and seek healing from racism, as caused by the traumas as a result of slavery. Elizabeth and Sylvia have co-facilitated numerous community conversations about history, racism, and slavery.

#OpenLetters to Bill Maher

Dear Bill, Your heart may be in the right place. But your mouth isn’t. It’s been a few months since you called yourself a ‘House-N#@*&+*.’ I’m still upset. That’s why I’m writing an open letter to you. Your apologies were not heartfelt. You recently ranted new racial slurs about Asians and Muslims. You totally missed all of your teachable moments.

Here are some ideas that might help. Try mindfulness therapy to control your racist outbursts. While racism may not be curable, you will learn to manage your hurtful words. To continue your healing journey, you should do something big. How about a public penance for your offenses? Start with an ‘Anti-Racism Million White Men’s March’!

And let’s not get it twisted. You must lead your brethren through the streets. Your protest signs must list at least 30 male privileges that need to be protested. Click here for a link to a male privilege checklist.

Show the world that you guys mean business. Make amends for your hasty ways. I have seen you take the heat for things you’ve said from Black news show hosts. You are one of the few White guys who will actually show up for difficult conversations. But talk is cheap. Let’s see some action.

Bill, if you tried, you could become a great role model. So, what do you say? Seize the time! Take the white male lead in the anti-racism movement! I believe you can do this. Leverage your celebrity platform to liberate your people from incredible stupidity, racism, sexism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings, and other male privileges.

The world will take notice of these important issues in a new way, when you take hold of them! All you need to do is band together like real brothers.

What’s in it for you? You would be able to say: ‘I finally did the right thing.’ Some may even turn green with envy. They might say: “Bill Maher stole my idea!” There are many well-meaning white men out there waiting for a nudge. And you might be the only one brazen enough to do this. In the meanwhile, stop using the N-word. Don’t justify it. You have better words to use.


Sylvia Wong Lewis,


#openletters to bill maher

Dear Bill, I recently watched your interviews with Micheal Eric Dyson and Ice Cube. I felt for you. I’m white, and those moments are always uncomfortable, even out of the spotlight. I commend you for inviting public conversation the way you did. It is tremendously difficult for most white men I know to show up for these conversations. I appreciate your leadership in that sense.

But for white people, unless we make an effort to thoroughly examine our attitudes about race and racism, those “embarrassing mistakes” are always lurking and will come out sooner or later, always at the immediate expense of People of Color. It’s only a matter of time.

I was asked to seriously examine my own white privilege in 1998 when my cousin told me that our Rhode Island family had enslaved and brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas, more than any other family in US history. She invited me to participate in what became the PBS documentary Traces of the Trade. Since then, I have had many moments where People of Color and African Americans have called me or other white people out on our racist behaviors. When that happens, I always feel a clenching in my throat and chest and a sweat beginning to break. I would love nothing more in those moments than to say “ ‘But…’ ‘I didn’t mean to…(Really I didn’t!)’ ‘ It was just an innocent mistake…’   ‘It’s because of…’.” The list goes on and on of what I could say to get out of that tight spot.

#OpenLetters to Bill Maher

Thankfully, I have learned to zip my lips, keep my ears open, and ride that wave of nasty discomfort. I have learned this in situations and spaces where people listen to each other with the intention of repairing the immense damage caused by slavery and its aftermath, such as Coming To The Table, a multiracial organization dedicated to healing from the legacies of slavery.

As I said before, I get that you did not premeditate or intend harm with your ‘house nigger’ comment, but as the host on your own show, neither did you embrace that made-much-of “teachable moment.”

Here’s why: You indulged in the privilege of excuses – “It was a mistake.” “I’m sorry.” “It’s because I’m a comedian.” You tried several times to interrupt them. Furthermore, although at that point you had already publicly apologized, you still felt entitled to reiterate that you already knew their points about white privilege and its destructive effects. In the end, I felt I was watching a sad and familiar pattern as your guests politely let you off the hook, an invitation we are often too eager to accept from People of Color, kind of like Obama’s beer on the White House lawn.

Now a powerful way to use your platform would be to be open and transparent about how all of this has made you feel. Without apology and without defensiveness. That is what is missing. I know that’s hard, and probably doesn’t sell well. It might not make for a funny or even profitable evening. Some folks will get pretty angry. But a powerful white man modelling how to shut up and really listen could teach how we begin forming honest and transformational relationships with People of Color.

How much would you really stand to lose, and how much could we all gain?


Elizabeth Sturges Llerena


Elizabeth shares the back story about her art work in photo below called ‘What’s Hidden Below.’

#openletters to Bill Maher

What’s Hidden Underneath is based on my experience as a white North American whose generation is the first to break our family’s collective silence about slave traders in the family. The pattern on the outer part of the dress is based on a 19th century textile design entitled Cotton Printed With a Portrait of a Military Hero, however the portrait in the design is a portrait of my ancestor, James DeWolf, who in his lifetime and in the popular mythology of my family and childhood community, was considered an upstanding citizen; a successful businessman and a “hero” of sorts. If we pull back the front panels of the skirt we see images of a DeWolf ship, Cape Coast Castle, a slave fort in Ghana frequented by DeWolf ships, and the tools of torture that were used to enslave people in Ghana, Cuba and New England as well as the Southern states.

The truth is that the DeWolfs were the largest slave trading family in the history of the United States. Bristol, Rhode Island my childhood home, is where the DeWolfs resided and made their fortune. Bristol is a beautiful town. To this day, its overwhelmingly white residents comfortably enjoy its beauty while refusing to acknowledge its true history, where the economy once relied almost exclusively on the horrific and brutal Triangle Trade.

This piece is meant to reveal what is hidden underneath white over-privilege in America. On the part of the dress that can only be partially seen are images of living, passed, young, old, famous and not-so-famous African Americans and other people of color representing the legacy of slavery which still renders people of color invisible or only partially visible on so much of white America’s radar screen.





Godparents Day!


Happy Godparent’s Day! In the US, Godparents Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of June. I was thrilled to hear that this holiday existed. My Godparents were substitute parents for me. My primary Godmother, Aunt Sybil, was my mother’s oldest sister. She was my ‘other mother’ and teacher. She taught me about spirituality and about my Caribbean heritage. I owe her my appreciation for gardening and Diaspora cooking, especially Chinese Trinidad, Guyana food. She was my mentor, spiritual, personal, professional, and financial advisor throughout my whole life. I mentioned ‘primary’ Godmother, as I actually had another set of Godparents! Those included a paternal Protestant uncle and a maternal Buddhist/Catholic aunt (in photo above)! Godparents were also called ‘sponsors’ among some of my multicultural kinfolks.

However, Godparents can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the film ‘The Godfather’ where the ‘family’ is a group of dysfunctional people with vendettas. Many of today’s modern families don’t name Godparents for their children. Some Godmothers and Godfathers lavish their Godchildren with money and gifts for every birthday and holiday imagined! Some Godparents are always available to babysit their Godchild. Some Godchildren show no appreciation for this tradition.

Becoming a Godparent: Godparenting is about religious responsibilities and being a support to the parents. An important point here is that in some cultures, you have the right and duty to stand up to the parent if they are not being good parents! Usually Godparents are asked to participate in the Christening and Baptism of a child and sometimes an adult. There are religious rites and duties for being a Godparent and a Godchild! Many people choose Godparents for their children to honor a friendship. Some people choose for financial reasons. It’s up to you to decided whether you accept this honored role. No matter the reason, being a Godparent is all about being a positive role model to a child. It’s also up to you to decide if you will choose a Godparent for your child. If you do, how will you decide who will make a good Godparent for your child?

Being a Godchild: I always took my role as a Goddaughter serious. I believe the basic rules: Be there! Show up in every way you can! I called and visited my Godmother often throughout my whole life. I became her daughter and right-hand person as much as I could until she transitioned. I also had adopted Godmothers from among neighbors and friend’s parents, especially during my teen years and young adulthood! It’s important for Godchildren to understand that it’s a relationship. They should remember their Godparent’s birthday, Christmas and more.

As a genealogist, I found important family history in religious documents such as Baptisms, Christenings, and Bible records. (The above document is my brother Sidney’s Baptism record in the Episcopal Church. He was also Baptized in a Catholic Church, as mentioned in blog post below.)These religious ceremony documents also provide needed legal value too! Here’s a related excerpt from my past blog post: “Many mothers delay naming their children,” said an NYC official who requested anonymity. As a genealogist trying to prove a client’s identity, my first thought was to go to church—in this case, the Roman Catholic Church.” To read more, click here.

How do you honor your Godparents? How did/would you choose a Godmother or Godfather for your child?


art by Jeff Donaldson

Ageless & Fly


My ‘Ageless, Fly, Advanced Humans’ Pinterest page is a work in progress. Curated to inspire, I expanded it recently in honor of Women’s History Month. I also inserted ‘Still radical’ to update the title.

Still radical. The recent US presidential election has generated requests for my diversity and anti-racism work just as I moved on to do more fun activities. Political, community activities, like meetings, marching and pressuring elected officials to protect the arts, gardens, schools, housing, and historic sites are still my focus.

As caregiver to an elder relative, I decided to signup at the local senior center. The two feisty, black ladies who welcomed me said: “You live nearby? Great. Can you do a presentation on Langston Hughes tomorrow? These people don’t know a thing about Black History.” The twin sisters, both retired, 80-year-old educators said in unison: “Retirement? What’s old? There’s still work to do!”

The twins reminded me of the women on my ‘Ageless’ page. They are all living with grace, style and purpose. When you get a chance, check out the stunning 86-year-old bride making an entrance in her purple-lavender wedding cape and dress. A buffed 74-year-old athlete showed off her glistening muscles. There’s also an ancient African Queen receiving a kiss on her forehead from a granddaughter with the quote: ‘Peace to my ancestors and my elders. I walk in your strength, legacy, power, today and everyday.” Click here to see amazing images.

Here are my Women’s History Month highlights:

smithie sista
Sisterhood w/Smithie, Janice Morrison, brunch at Lido’s, Harlem.

Sisterhood. Although March is recognized as Women’s History Month, I celebrate women all the time. You may thank Smith College, my alma mater, for that! I always enjoy the sisterhood of Smithies and Sib meet-ups.

United Nations. I attended the UN International Women’s Day’s conference. The theme was women’s work – the unpaid and paid kind. The horror stories that I heard about girls and women’s work around the world filled me with empathy and gratitude.

Award-winning actor, Anne Hathaway, this year’s UN Goodwill Ambassador and mother of an infant, spoke about paid maternity leave and how outrageous it is to expect women to go back to work so soon after giving birth.

“The deeper into the issue of paid parental leave I go, the clearer I see the connection between persisting barriers to women’s full equality and empowerment, and the need to redefine and in some cases, de-stigmatize men’s role as caregivers. In other words, to liberate women, we need to liberate men.

Ann Hathaway
Anne Hathaway, UN Goodwill Ambassador, was keynote speaker.

“I don’t mean to imply that you need to have children to care about and benefit from this issue—whether you have—or want—kids, you will benefit by living in a more evolved world with policies not based on gender. We all benefit from living in a more compassionate time where our needs do not make us weak, they make us fully humans.”

For Anne Hathaway’s full speech, click here.

American women are still waiting for our country to catch up with Iceland. But the rest of the world’s women need serious help.

“Iceland’s government announced plans to eradicate gender pay disparities by 2022. Four Russian feminist activists unfurled a giant poster outside the Kremlin in Moscow, denouncing the patriarchy (they were arrested). India’s prime minister honored a symbol of rural women’s aspirations for dignity and self-sufficiency — the toilet. The Egyptian authorities said they would allow female prisoners an extra family visit this month.  To read more, click here.

Pamela J. Joyner
Pamela J. Joyner, art advocate, collector, Brooklyn Museum honoree.

Brooklyn Museum’s Fund for African American Art Benefit honored Pamela J. Joyner for her courageous and tireless commitment to artists. Talk about fly! Ms. Joyner is a beloved and fabulous arts advocate. “She’s a treasure to the black artist. There’s no one like her!” artist Jack Whitten told the audience. A panel discussion ‘Breaking the Canon’ moderated by Rujeko Hockley, featured artists Simone Leigh, Hugo McCloud, Julie Mehretu, and Jack Whitten. A private reception was held in the beautiful Beaux-Arts Court with live music and delicious food. Click here for more about Pamela J. Joyner.

mother, grandmother
mother Carmen, grandmother, Violet

Maternal Re-post.  I always reflect on family during Women’s History Month. If she were alive today, I think my mother would feel proud that her Chinese-Caribbean story was featured in the New York Historical Society’s Museum & Library exhibit (2014) called “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion.” It chronicled the complex history of the Chinese in the Americas and the challenges of immigration and migration. Click here for a link.


Influential Black Women 2017, TNJ25 honorees

Network Journal.  We attended the Network Journal’s 19th Annual ’25 Influential Black Women in Business. Aziz Gueye Adetimirin, founder, CEO of The Network Journal Communication Inc., greeted the audience with lovely words of gratitude to my husband Byron. Apparently Byron had keynoted TNJ25’s inaugural luncheon in Brooklyn nineteen years ago. Held this year at the grand Marriott Marquis, TNJ25 is considered NYC’s top networking event for diverse professionals. Here is an official description of the award event from TNJ’s website:

“Launched in March 1999, The Network Journal’s 25 Influential Black Women in Business Awards honors women whose professional achievements have significantly impacted an industry or profession, and who also have made an important contribution to their community. A “TNJ25” honoree typically is a business owner, or a partner, president, CEO, board chair, or other senior-management executive with significant decision-making authority in the corporate, nonprofit (including academia and medicine), or government sector.Click here for profiles of the women honored.


art by Jeff Donaldson
Jeff Donaldson’s art celebrates black women, Kravet/Wehby gallery.

Art galleries. Visiting museums and art galleries are my favorite weekend activity. On a recent Saturday I wandered around three art galleries with artist friend Martha Mae Jones. We started with expressionist artist Jack Whitten’s show at Hauser & Wirth. We saw a dance rehearsal and art inspired by Romare Bearden’s ‘Bayou Fever’ at DCMoore gallery. Finally, Martha’s late friend Jeff Donaldson’s show currently running at Kravets/Wehby Gallery was the icing on the cake. His affirmation of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement shines through with lots of paintings of black women. Go see it! Here’s a link to a Donaldson review.

Martha Mae Jones
w/artist Martha Mae Jones, posing next to a Jack Whitten sculpture.

What did you do for Women’s History Month?