Lawyer, scholar, and publisher John Wesley Cromwell (1846-1927) was heavily involved in the civic and cultural life of Washington. A prolific writer, Cromwell wrote the pioneering study, The First Negro Churches in the District of Columbia (1917), The Negro in American History (1914), and other works, and was founder and editor of the People's Advocate, a weekly newspaper published in Alexandria, Virginia, from 1876 until 1886.
John Wesley Cromwell was born enslaved in Portsmouth, Virginia. After Emancipation, Cromwell and his family moved to Philadelphia. Cromwell returned to Portsmouth to open a private school in 1865, but the school failed under the pressure of local hostility. In 1871 Cromwell moved to Washington, and he received a law degree from Howard University in 1874. He worked as chief examiner for the U.S. Post Office and served as president of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association. In 1896 Cromwell was a co-founder, along with Alexander Crummell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Walter B. Hayson, and Kelly Miller, of the American Negro Academy. The academy was a learned society of "colored authors, scholars, and artists" dedicated to advancing African American culture through scholarly publishing and by supporting "youths of genius." He was a frequent lecturer at the Central Public (Carnegie) Library.
Cromwell's son, John Wesley Cromwell, Jr., was the first African American to become a licensed certified public accountant in 1921. He passed his licensing exam in New Hampshire rather than Washington, where he was not permitted to sit for the exam. In 1930 he became comptroller of Howard University.
Cromwell's daughter Otelia (1874-1972) was the first known African American to graduate from Smith College (1900). Otelia taught in the DC Public Schools, received an M.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Yale University, and joined the faculty of Miner Teachers College where she remained until her retirement in 1944.
John Wesley Cromwell lived at 1439 Swann Street, NW, from 1894 until his death.