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100th Birthday of Trinidadian Sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox

by Alfonso R. Latoni-Rodríguez, Director Minority Affairs Program

Trinidadian sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox died in 1974 at 73 years of age. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on August 25, 1901, he would have reached 100 years of age last August, hence several centennial commemorations have honored his life and work.

Oliver Cromwell Cox received his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1938. For many years he had been searching for answers that would point to the causes of the Great Depression of the early 1930s. He sought to resolve his queries by studying economics at Chicago, where, in 1932, he received a Master’s degree. He felt dissatisfied with the economic explanation of the depression and sought answers in sociology. According to his nieces, Ann V. Awon-Pantin, Esther Awon-Thomasos, and Juliet Awon-Uibopuu, as well as to others well versed in his works and biography, such as Herbert M. Hunter, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Adolph Reed, New School University, Cox was instrumental in leading the inclusion of economics in the teaching of sociology.

The racial situation of the 1940s in the United States was an obstacle for Dr. Cox to secure a faculty position in any prestigious university, despite holding a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago. From 1938 to 1944, he held positions of professor of economics and Director of the Bureau of Social Research at Wiley College, a then small Baptist School in Marshall, Texas. In 1942, he published “Social Focus–The Modern Caste School of Race Relations.” According to his biographers, he was among the first American sociologists to present an opposing view to the then emerging notion of the Black/White relations in the United States as constituting a caste system. He became a comprehensive and ardent critique of caste theories and other concepts. His book Caste, Class, and Race, published in 1942, was sold out in six months and received the George Washington Carver Award from Double Day & Company. Interesting enough, the book was not re-printed due to “controversy” and “unprecedented interest.” Monthly Review later took upon the publishing of the book. In 1949 he was hired as an associate professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he eventually retired.

According to his nieces, he had planned to return to Trinidad early in his life after graduating from Northwestern University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in law in 1928. After graduation he succumbed to poliomyelitis, which permanently crippled his legs. At this turning point, he decided against returning to Trinidad, where he believed he could not function as an attorney due to his disability, and was bound to find another career. He then turned to graduate study in economics and sociology.

Oliver C. Cox was innovative, controversial, and thought-provoking regarding his scientific work in the field of sociology. In recognition of his life’s work, the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association annually presents the “Oliver C. Cox Award” for best sociology book. Also, the Missouri Sociological Association annually conducts “The Oliver C. Cox Graduate Student Paper Competition.”