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Sun, 06.21.1868

Jane ‘Nellie’ Datcher, Botanist, Teacher, and Woman’s Activist

Jane "Nellie" Datcher

*This date in 1868 is celebrated as the birth date of Jane 'Nellie' Datcher. She was a Black botanist and women's activist.

Jane Eleanor Datcher was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Samuel and Mary Victoria Cook Datcher. Her maternal grandfather, Rev. John Francis Cook, Sr., was the founding pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Datcher attended both public and private schools run by members of the Black community in Washington, D.C. In 1877, she earned a certificate for academic achievement from the Public Schools of the District of Columbia.

In 1886, at age 19, she enrolled at Cornell University with her cousin, Charles Chauveau Cook. It was the only school that would educate them both. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell in 1890 for her research on the species Hepatica triloba and Hepatica acutiloba. Datcher, her cousin Charles, and George Washington Fields were among the first three blacks to graduate from Cornell.

Because of her excellent scholarship during her years at Cornell, Datcher was honored to sit in the center of the front row in the Cornell Class of 1890 graduation photo. That year, she was the first black woman to earn an advanced degree from Cornell University. Over 20 of her relatives attended Cornell. Her cousin, Charles C. Cook, eventually joined the staff at Howard University as a professor and head of the English Department. Datcher went on to attend Howard Medical School from 1893 to 1894.           

Later years and legacy

After college, Datcher helped form the Collegiate Alumnae Club (later part of the Colored Women's League), an organization and resource for educated Black women. Other notable women in attendance include Anna Julia Cooper, Helen Appo Cook, Ida Bell Wells-BarnettCharlotte Forten GrimkéMary Jane Patterson, and Evelyn Shaw. Although the founders opposed segregation, they wanted to open membership to graduates of Howard and other so-called "negro colleges," who were denied membership in the predominately White Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

Datcher taught chemistry at Dunbar High School until soon before her death on February 24, 1934. This school allowed Datcher to teach black students at a high academic level while earning parity pay with Washington's white schoolteachers. Datcher was originally buried in the old Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, DC, but is believed to have been re-interred, with about 37,000 others, in the National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George's County, Maryland, in 1960.

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