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Jane Eleanor Datcher: First African-American woman to obtain an advanced degree at Cornell

From Ed Cobb, Chair, SIPS History Committee:

jane datcher portrait

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Jane Eleanor Datcher (Nellie to her friends) was the first African-American woman to obtain an advanced degree at Cornell. She grew up in Washington, D.C. where she attended private and public schools. In 1877, she was awarded a certificate for her scholarship from the “Public Schools of the District of Columbia”.

public school certificate

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Datcher received her B.S. degree in 1890 from  the Cornell Botany Department in part because of a precisely hand-written thesis entitled A biological sketch of Hepatica triloba Chaix and Hepatica acutiloba DC. Hepatica is a genus of a Spring flowering plant found in the Six Mile Creek area of Ithaca, NY as well as other locations.

Datcher was included in an 1891 article about “Sage Maidens of Cornell University” published in Demorest’s Family Magazine. To quote the magazine’s figure description (see figure below)  “Pictured in ‘Sage Maidens of Cornell,’ Jane Datcher (second row, second from the left), her cousin Charles Chauveau Cook, and George Washington Fields (all class of 1890) were the first African-American students to graduate from Cornell. Datcher was the daughter of freeborn blacks who resided in Washington. She studied in private schools run by the city’s black community ….”.

sage maidens

Datcher also held a prominent place at the center of the front row in the Cornell Class of 1890 graduation photo. Her cousin Charles C. Cook is seen at the far right in the front row of the photo shown below.

1890 graduation

Image courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

After her studies at Cornell, Datcher attended Howard Medical School from 1893 to 1894. She taught chemistry from 1892 until 1934 at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. until a short time before her death. She was well loved by the faculty and her students who held a memorial service in her honor.

datcher memorium program

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Jane Datcher’s  great grandmother on her father’s side of the family was Rachel Mann, a full-blooded Algonquin who lived until the age of 108. Over 20 of Datcher’s relatives attended Cornell (Carol Kammen, Part and Apart  The Black Experience at Cornell 1865 -1945, 2009) including several cousins and her niece, Adelaide Helen Cook Daly, A. B. 1918, daughter of Charles Chauveau Cook, B.L. 1890. Charles C. Cook became a professor and head of  the English Department at Howard University where he was a popular teacher from 1892 until his untimely death in 1910 at the age of 36.

Thomas Turner: First African-American to receive a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S.

Thomas Turner’s 1901 graduation portrait from Howard University.

Thomas Turner’s 1901 graduation portrait from Howard University.

By Ed Cobb, SIPS history committee chair

One notable example of Ezra Cornell’s “… any person … any study” vision is Thomas Wyatt Turner (1877-1978). Born in Maryland to a family of sharecroppers, Turner spoke often in his later years about the importance of education in overcoming the difficult circumstances of his childhood.

After earning a B.S. and M.A. from Howard University, he became acting Dean at Howard, taking summer leaves of absence to complete a Ph.D. at Cornell. In 1921, Turner became the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S.

At Cornell, Turner worked with the world-renowned plant physiologist, Otis Freeman Curtis. His thesis was on The physiological effects of salts in altering the ratio of top to root growth – a topic that resonates even today in terms of the consequences of climate change, ocean levels, and the sustainability of crops.

Turner was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and worked tirelessly to advance social justice for blacks and other minorities in the Catholic Church.

“Whether it was in NAACP circles, railroad and steamship discriminations, voting hindrances or [being barred from] church observance, I have found myself ever battling to remove the disagreeable obstacles which were in the path of the Negro citizen wherever he went,” Turner recalls in his biography, From Sharecropper to Scientist.

Turner became a professor of botany and the department head at the Hampton Institute, a historically black private college in southeast Virginia. Four of his students obtained advanced degrees from Cornell including John Carothers (Agriculture), Flemmie P. Kittrel (Home Economics), Charles Logan Cooper (Vocational Education) and Amanda Eunice Peele (Botany).

Turner died in 1978 at the age of 101.

Turner and wife Louise in Enfield, N.Y. 1936.

Turner and wife Louise in Enfield, N.Y. 1936.

Wedding announcement 1936.

Wedding announcement 1936.

Turner and wife Louise c.1940.

Turner and wife Louise c.1940.

Summer Nature Study School circa 1898

Summer Nature Study School students and faculty, circa 1898

Summer Nature Study School students and faculty, circa 1898. (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell Library)

Hunn with dwarf lima beans in Bailey cyanotype 1904

lima-bean-cyanotype

In September 1904 cyanotype by Liberty Hyde Bailey, his gardener C. E. Hunn shows runners on dwarf lima bean plants in Bailey’s shading experiments.

L.H. Bailey with students (including David Williston) 1898

bailey-williston

Liberty Hyde Bailey (standing, far right) and his horticulture students in 1898.   David A. Williston ’98, the first professionally trained African American Landscape Architect in the U.S., is sitting, fifth from the right with bow tie and glasses.

Williston both taught and practiced as a horticulturist and campus planner at dozens of historically black institutions, including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he taught for more than 20 years.

This photo is located in Cornell’s Rare Manuscript Collection, Kroch Library.

Sage Chapel, Easter 1923

sage chapel easter 1923

Floral decoration for Sage Chapel by Edward A White, Easter 1923. White was Horticulture chair from 1913 until 1939.

Soils field laboratory 1907

soils lab 1907

Soils class field laboratory near Varna in 1907.

Roberts Hall 1920s

roberts hall 1920s

The original Roberts Hall faced Tower Rd. near the corner of Garden Ave.

Minns Garden c. 1925

minns garden students

Original location of Minns Garden at the corner of Garden Ave. and Tower Rd. Assistant Professor Lua Alice Minns is fifth from right.

Sage Conservatory 1890

sage conservatory

Inside Sage Conservatory 1890.

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