A closeup of Nellie Datcher from the Class of 1890 group photo

Remembering the First Black Woman to Graduate from Cornell

Stories You May Like

Thought Prelims Were Hard? Try These Vintage Entrance Exams

Hail, All Hail, Cornell!

Cornell’s First Female Doctoral Grad

A lifelong educator, Nellie Datcher 1890 was a leading scholar on the Hill—and one of several Big Red alums in her family

This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Caitlin Hayes

A close look at a photograph of Cornell’s graduating class of 1890 reveals a milestone: In the front row, center, stands Jane Eleanor “Nellie” Datcher, the first known Black woman to earn an undergraduate degree from Cornell and the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a degree in botany.

Datcher—who earned her spot in the photo on the Morrill Hall steps by excelling academically—went on to impact generations of Black students as a high school chemistry teacher. She also participated in the founding of regional and national networks for Black women.

Cornell’s 1865 charter, radical in its day, meant that anyone who passed the entrance exams could come to Cornell, regardless of race, sex, or religion—making it one of the only universities at the time that would accept Black women.

A group photo of Cornelll's Class of 1890
Datcher (front row, just left of center) in a Class of 1890 group photo.

“Most of the important universities or named universities in the country only took men,” says Carol Kammen, Tompkins County historian, retired senior lecturer in history, and author of Part & Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell: 1865–1945.

“Cornell was the most significant school accepting women and African Americans, and Datcher’s uncle wanted his son and niece to get the best education available to them.”

While the University did not systematically keep records of race, Datcher may have been among the first cohort of Black students to graduate from Cornell, along with Charles Chauveau Cook 1890 (her cousin) and George Washington Fields, LLB 1890. All three are pictured in the photograph, along with several international students, from Latin America, Europe, and Japan.

Cornell was the most significant school accepting women and African Americans.

Historian Carol Kammen

Stories You May Like

Thought Prelims Were Hard? Try These Vintage Entrance Exams

Hail, All Hail, Cornell!

Datcher was born in 1868 in Washington, DC, where she attended both private and public schools. Her maternal grandfather was born into slavery; after gaining freedom, he became deeply involved in efforts to provide academic and religious education to the Black community.

At age 19, Datcher came to Cornell in 1886 with Cook (then 15); both were from a prominent Black family in the Washington, DC, area. Many of Datcher’s family members followed in her footsteps, with records of at least six relatives attending Cornell, including cousins and Cook’s son and daughter.

Datcher excelled on the Hill, graduating with honors and even completing a thesis (not required by undergraduates), a handwritten “biological sketch” of two species of native wildflowers in the buttercup family.

None of Datcher’s letters or papers have survived or surfaced, but records indicate that she boarded with a local widow for her first year in Ithaca and then moved into the Sage College for Women (now Sage Hall).

Datcher would have lived and taken many of her classes in Sage, built in 1875, which housed the botany department in an addition, including a botanical conservatory built in 1882. The building also boasted a pool, gym, and indoor plumbing. Photos of a classroom show a line of microscopes on a table set against large windows used for natural light—as the University was just beginning to install electricity.

Jane Eleanor Datcher
A portrait of Datcher.

“It would have been a wonderful environment,” says Ed Cobb ’73, retired research support specialist in the School of Integrative Plant Science, who researched and wrote a blog about Datcher. “By the time Jane came here, Sage had a nice dormitory, its own gymnasium and cafeteria, a gorgeous conservatory. I think it was a kind of golden era.”

Kammen suspects that Datcher had camaraderie with her female classmates. “In the [Class of 1890] photo, Datcher is standing with the other women, in the front, as an equal,” she says, “and there’s physical contact, which is unusual for that day.”

Datcher remained committed to education. After studying at Howard Medical School from 1893–94, she taught chemistry at DC’s renowned Dunbar High School—the first public high school in the U.S. for Black youth—until her death in 1934.

Top: A close-up of Datcher in the Class of 1890 photo. Images courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Published February 14, 2023


  1. Donna, Class of 1972

    What are the graduates holding in this picture? A flower or pipe of some kind? Why?

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like