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 chemistry teacher at Dunbar High School, the first public high school in the U.S. for Black youth. 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.
“Most of the important universities or named universities in the country only took men,” said Carol Kammen, Tompkins County Historian, retired senior lecturer in history in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), 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 her cousin, Charles Chauveau Cook, Class of 1890; and George Washington Fields, who earned his degree that year from the Cornell Law School. All three are pictured in the photograph, along with several international students, from Latin America, Europe and Japan.
Datcher, then 19, came to Cornell in 1886 with Cook, 15, both from a prominent Black family in the Washington, D.C., 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. Cook went on to earn another degree at Howard University while also serving as professor and chair of the English department before his death at age 36.
Datcher excelled at Cornell, 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 that she might have found both in Ithaca and her native Washington, D.C.
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.
“It would have been a wonderful environment,” said Ed Cobb '73, retired research support specialist in the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 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 comradery with her female classmates. “In the [class of 1890] photo, Datcher is standing with the other women, in the front, as an equal, and there's physical contact, which is unusual for that day,” she said.
Datcher remained committed to education once she graduated, studying at Howard Medical School from 1893-94 and then teaching chemistry at Dunbar – formerly known as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth and the M Street High School, and renowned for its academic excellence – until her death in 1934.
Many of Dunbar’s teachers had advanced degrees and, as federal employees, earned the same wages as their white counterparts in other D.C. schools. Robert L. Harris, professor emeritus of Africana Studies (A&S), notes in his foreword to Kammen’s “Part and Apart,” that Dunbar was seen as the best high school in the nation for Black students in the first half of the 20th century, with 80% of the graduating class going on to earn advanced degrees, many at Cornell.
While at Dunbar, Datcher participated in forming the Collegiate Alumnae Club with fellow teacher and national civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell (who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1884 and master’s degree in 1888, both from Oberlin College). The club served as a resource for educated Black women and aimed to improve the living conditions of poor Black women and children. It was later incorporated into the Colored Women’s League and then the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, a valuable network that brought together educated Black female activists across the U.S.
A program from the archives at Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center documents a schoolwide memorial service held in Datcher’s honor at Dunbar in 1934, featuring tributes from current students and colleagues, and from a distinguished former student: Robert Percy Barnes, a chemistry professor at Howard who was the first Black man to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University.
Datcher was born in 1868 in Washington, D.C., where she attended both private and public schools. Her maternal grandfather, John F. Cook, Sr., was born into slavery; after gaining freedom, he became deeply involved in efforts to provide academic and religious education to the Black community. According to Kammen, John Cook’s aunt, Alethia Tanner, used proceeds from a garden plot to buy her own freedom and, over the course of a few years, paid more than $20,000 to free 22 members of her family, including Cook.
Kammen said Datcher continued her family’s legacy as a public servant dedicated to advancing opportunity for the Black community.
“She became part of a very significant group of educated Black women in Washington, D.C.,” Kammen said. “They had important jobs, they were homeowners, they were club women, church women. They were very interested in racial uplift, the ideas of W.B. Dubois, and they upheld the community.”