Oliver Cromwell Cox
August 23, 1901—September 4, 1974
With the kind and generous permission of Monthly Review, the following profile was excerpted by Ann V. Awon Pantin, Esther Awon Thomasos and Juliet Awon Uibopuu from Dr. Oliver Cromwell Cox’s recently released book, “Race.”
Oliver Cromwell Cox was born on August 25th, 1901 in Port of Spain, Trinidad into a middle class family. His devoted parents, William Raphael Cox and Virginia Blake Cox, brought him up at their homes in Port-of-Spain and in Tabaquite – the location of their cocoa estate. William Cox insisted that all of his children go to the United States to better themselves academically. His oldest son, Ethelbert Fitzgerald did medicine. On the other hand, Reginald, who wanted to do dentistry, surrendered his dream when the Whites-only dental school of his choice did not accept him. The person most instrumental in the formation of this outstanding sociology genius, Oliver Cromwell Cox, was his mentor, tutor and uncle, Reginald V. Vidale, a school principal who subsequently became inspector of schools; he later became mayor of Port of Spain. Reginald Vidale was a disciplinarian, a very dignified man and a bookworm. Others were famous black lawyers such as Muzumbo Lazare, Maxwell Phillip, Edgar Maresse-Smith, H.H. Hall, Thomas Meade Kelshall, Cyrus Prudhomme David and Sir Henry Alcazar who impressed Oliver so much that he decided to study law in 1919 when he left Trinidad for Chicago. Having met the prerequisites for entry, he attended and graduated from Northwestern University in 1928 where he received a Bachelor of Science Degree in law.
Initially, he had planned to return to Trinidad after graduation; however, tragically, he succumbed to poliomyelitis which permanently crippled both legs. Faced with this disability and realizing that he could not function as an attorney, he felt compelled to find another career. He entered the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago. In June 1932, he graduated with a Master’s Degree. His thesis was entitled “Working Men’s Compensation in the USA.” Knowledge of the law enabled him to present many cases in which he demonstrated to the government ways to improve compensation for all workers. To this day, workers continue to benefit from the early findings of these cases. The cause of the Great Depression of the 1930’s puzzled Oliver because the opinions of the Chicago economists were unacceptable to his extremely curious mind. His quest for answers led him to believe that studying Sociology would help. “I felt that if the economists did not explain what I wanted to know; if economists did not explain the coming of the Depression and did not help me to understand the great economic change, then I felt I did not need it.” Consequently, he attended the University of Chicago – Department of Sociology, and graduated on August 22nd, 1938 with a Ph.D. in Sociology. Not only did he find the answers that he sought for the cause of the depression, but also discovered the correlation between sociology and economics. These discoveries led to the inclusion of economics in the teaching of sociology – thus changing the course of sociology forever.
For Oliver, securing a position in the more resourceful white universities was impossible, considering the racial situation at that time. Oliver settled for Wiley College, a small Methodist school in Marshall, Texas. While there, he held the positions of Professor of Economics and Director of the Bureau of Social Research from 1938 to 1944. At Wiley, he began his critique of the Caste Interpretation of Race Relations that was gaining popularity among American social scientists. He published “Social Focus – The Modern Caste School of Race Relations” in 1942. This established him as the first American Sociologist to present an opposing view to the emerging notion of the Black/White relations in the United States as constituting a caste system. A more comprehensive critique of the caste theory and other concepts can be found in “Caste, Class and Race” which was first published by Doubleday & Company in 1942. For this book, which sold out in six months, Cox received the George Washington Carver Award from Doubleday & Company. Paradoxically, this very publisher refused to continue printing it because of “controversy” and “unprecedented interest.” In spite of these reasons and the literary injustice, Monthly Review took on the role as publisher.
In 1944, he accepted a position at Tuskegee Institute as a substitute for other faculty members who were involved in political activities. As Charles Gomillion reports, “Cox was scholarly and it was felt that he could bring some prestige to the school in research and teaching. His publication record was impressive and he was thought highly of by his peers.” In 1949, he applied for a position at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri as an associate professor and was hired. It is from there that he eventually retired without fanfare. Being the private man that he was, this was his special request. Later on, he was invited to Wayne State University as a “Distinguished Visiting Professor of Sociology.” He gained the reputation of being a very demanding professor who took his calling seriously, and expected his students to do likewise. Known as the professor who wrote books, he gave mostly C grades to his students. He believed in upgrading their vocabulary, and insisted on the use of appropriate language. He had great disdain for slouching and dozing in class. His disability paled when he had the accelerator and the gas pedals of his car installed in the steering wheel. He enjoyed driving his own car. During one of his visits to Trinidad, we were at Staubles Bay, when suddenly, he dove into the water and swam to the amazement of everyone. Much of his social life came to a premature stop which provided an abundance of free time for research and study at the many libraries he frequented.
His strict approach followed through to the letters that his nieces wrote to him – he would always return them corrected! The goals of Oliver Cromwell Cox were to teach and to improve minds. He was a philanthropist who was a kind and gentle man. His generosity to all family members was one of the many hallmarks of his character. Out of special love for his sister, Stella Awon, and her children, Joyce Awon Langton, Juliet Awon Uibopuu, Ann V. Awon Pantin, Esther Awon Thomasos and June Awon Bellamy, he was particularly generous by his constantly showering them with gifts.
Today, the sociology of Oliver Cromwell Cox lives through his intellectual legacy and his books.