The following is from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: a History of Fullerton.
“Be kind, everyone is fighting a hard battle.”
--Jewel Plummer Cobb
In an age when young people tend to idolize celebrities, and ignore those making real contributions to the world, it is refreshing to hear about people like Jewel Plummer Cobb. She was the third president of Cal State University, Fullerton (1981-1990), and the first black female to be president of a University in the western United States. In 1990, shortly before her retirement, Cobb sat down with CSUF history professor Lawrence deGraaf for a series of interviews about her life. The interviews, which are available in the Center for Oral and Public History at the Pollack Library, are a testament to a life fully lived, and incredible obstacles overcome. What follows is my summation of Cobb’s life, based on these interviews. All images are courtesy of the Launer Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library.
Jewel Plummer was born in 1924 in Chicago, Iliinois. Her great grandfather, Adam Francis Plummer, was a slave who worked on a plantation outside of Washington D.C., and kept a handwritten journal of his life, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Adam’s daughter, Nellie Arnold Plummer, wrote a book in 1927 called Out of the Depths, or The Triumph of the Cross, documenting the family history both during and after slavery.
|Jewel as a little girl in Chicago, with her mother in the background.|
She describes the changing demographics of Chicago in the years after World War I:
“There was a large black population, called Negro then, migrating up the Mississippi River Valley to Chicago. You see, the stockyards determined the pattern of jobs during the First World War. The unskilled labor pool from Europe dried up in wartime because they could not come across the ocean in boats and so forth. So the word got around that they needed workers in the stockyards in Chicago. Hence, a large migration up from the Mississippi Delta region to Chicago to work in the stockyards. That was a tremendous growth. Thousands and thousands of black folks came north to Chicago specifically for that reason…With this movement or migration northward also came the black professionals to service them. And so my father was, of course, one of the doctors that served this newly migrated labor pool coming to work in the stockyards.”
Cobb recalls growing up in a highly segregated Chicago. Schools, restaurants, and public facilities were all segregated. “You couldn’t go downtown to eat in a restaurant,” she says, “it was law.” Her high school was mixed, but “Blacks and whites stayed apart outside of high school.” When she graduated from high school, she remembers, “we had two separate high school proms because black students were not allowed to go to the hotels in Chicago, and thus to a prom anywhere.”
Housing, and neighborhoods in Chicago were totally segregated, and coincided with both black influx and “white flight.” Because her family was middle class, she describes living in areas newly vacated by white residents: “We always lived in what was called a changing neighborhood—that is, a neighborhood that had recently been vacated by white folks. And we knew also that following our leaving, it would be occupied by Mexicans.”
Jewel’s father was a doctor (who was only allowed to serve black clients). He was the main inspiration for her decision to study science. It was in high school that she discovered her love for biology: “My second year in high school was when I decided that I loved biology because I had a teacher—Miss Hyman was her name—and the things we did in the class were very exciting using the microscope. It was the first time I ever used a microscope, and I found that wonderful to be able to see things through it that I could not see ordinarily. That was fascinating. And I took five years of science in high school.”
|Jewel as a young scientist at Harlem Hospital.|
After high school, Cobb attended the University of Michigan in 1942. She recalls, “At Michigan, when I was there in 1941-1942, there were something like 200 black students, a big population. Seventy-five percent of them were form the South, and they were in medical school or law school or theology school or college. Particularly those from the South were there because their states would not allow them to go to their own medical schools or law schools.” Despite this, Cobb still experienced segregation, racism, and sexism: “Black students could not go to the local beer tavern, Pretzel Bell, where everyone went after football games, because they wouldn’t serve blacks. Also, we couldn’t go downtown to any of the restaurants or to get a haircut or a beauty parlor or whatever, for the same reason: the shops wouldn’t serve us. And then Men’s Union Building was off limits to women….I’m not kidding you. Michigan was sexist and racist.”
Unsatisfied with these and other elements, Cobb finally said, “Oh, to heck with this. This is just ridiculous,” and transferred to Talladega College in Alabama, which was a black college. Alabama, being in the deep south, was not without serious racial problems. She recalls, “We had known before we got there that the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on the campus the year before.” She recalls going to a segregated “black” restaurant in Birmingham with a white professor and his wife, who were “arrested and taken to jail for eating in a black restaurant, a violation of the city sanitary code, because the sanitary code stated that blacks and whites, when eating in a public restaurant, must be divided form one another by a six-foot curtain or wall, for sanitation purposes.”
She also remembers having to stay “in a terrible, flea-bitten old hotel, because that’s all we as blacks had access to,” and having to sit “in the back of the bus because that’s where we, as blacks, had to sit.” Once in the town of Talladega, a waitress told her, “We don’t serve niggers here.”
Cobb graduated with a B.A. in biology in 1945 from Talladega, and W.E.B. DuBois was her graduation speaker. Cobb initially was denied a fellowship for graduate study in biology at NYU because of her race. However, following a personal interview, she was granted the fellowship. In New York, there was serious housing discrimination against African Americans: “Blacks could not get apartments in Greenwich Village, so I lived Uptown, in Harlem.” It was at NYU that Cobb found her area of specialty, which was cell biology. She received her M.S. degree from NYU in 1947 and her Ph.D. degree in cell physiology in 1950. At the time, she recalls, the faculty at NYU was “all white.”
In 1949 she was appointed an independent investigator at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.
Following the receipt of her Ph.D. from NYU, Cobb held post-doctoral positions at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, Columbia University, and the National Cancer Institute. Her research included work on the relationship between melanin and skin damage, and on the effects of hormones, ultraviolet light, and chemotherapy agents on cell division. Cobb discovered that methotrexate was effective in the treatment of certain skin cancers, lung cancers, and childhood leukemia. This drug continues to be used in chemotherapy to treat a wide range of cancers, and in lower doses to treat a number of autoimmune diseases.
|Dr. Cobb at her son's college graduation.|
Cobb directed the tissue culture laboratory at the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1954, where she was the first black woman faculty at that school, a pattern that would continue throughout her life, breaking new ground not just as a scientist, but as a black woman. She continued her research work as a faculty member at NYU from 1956 to 1960, and at Sarah Lawrence College from 1960 to 1969. She remembers the Civil Rights and the feminist movements of the 1960s. Her husband participated in the March on Washington in 1963. Cobb was fully occupied as a professor and cutting edge researcher during these years, so she did not involver herself in politics or activism. “As far as the women’s movement goes,” she says, “I was living a feminist life by example.”
In her career as a scientist, Cobb collaborated with numerous other researchers, including noted oncologist Jane C. Wright. In recognition of her research achievements, Cobb was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1974. She was a member of the National Science Board from 1974 to 1980. She published dozens of articles in academic journals on topics ranging from cancer, to the role of women and minorities in higher education and the sciences.
Cobb began her career in academic administration in 1969 at Connecticut College, where she served as Dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of zoology until 1976. As an administrator, Cobb worked hard to increase the amount of women and minorities attending college: “I was interested in developing the human potential that exists for individuals who had been socialized to believe that they couldn’t do something. That is by far the most important thing, to change the attitude or the young women or minorities, period, to overcome the socialization factors that existed, the negative social factors. And also, in so doing, you contribute to the positive contributions they make as human beings.”
Cobb remembers, during the 1970s, as an administrator in Connecticut, witnessing student protests on campus over the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and the Vietnam War in general: “I came here in 1969, and we closed the campus for the Cambodian incident in 1970 and 1971.” This student activism on campus led to more student involvement and input: “We began to have a more involved student organization awareness of what went on in the curriculum and more of a role to play in the matters of the campus than had been possible before.”
In 1976 she became the first African American Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers University, where she also was a professor of biological sciences. As a Dean, she followed the philosophy that “You have to be a visionary and not just a manager.” In the 1970s, Cobb received numerous awards and accolades: outstanding alumna by the United Negro College Fund, the NYU Woman of Achievement Award, and many others.
In 1981, she was appointed President of California State University, Fullerton, as the first black woman president of a University in the western United States. She recalls this experience: “I felt that I was a stranger in their midst, so to speak, both administration and faulty, because I was a woman, I was black, and I was from the East.” Her impressions before coming to Orange County were: “It was John Birch Society territory. The John Birch Society had just finished doing something down in the south part of the county. I knew that Richard M. Nixon had been around here and Reagan. I knew that it was a very conservative county. People hastened to tell me that.” She recalls her first year as president in this way: “I have likened it to walking through a forest where there are lovely trees, nice flowers and, all of a sudden, you step on a land mine.” When Cobb was president at CSUF, there was an Affirmative Action office, which sought to recruit minorities and women, but the Affirmative Action program was eliminated in the 1990s by a ballot initiative sponsored by conservative groups.
As president, she was a visionary, encouraging a greater focus on women’s and ethnic studies. She remembers, “when I came to Cal State Fullerton, I asked about the library’s holdings for women’s studies. It was practically nonexistent. There was nothing here, hardly, in women’s history. Then, when I looked at the history department, it had zero or maybe one female. It was a shock to me to imagine that that existed.” She found “a distressing scene at this campus.”
She was also startled to find, at Cal State Fullerton, “a greater emphasis on the part of students on career-oriented courses (like business) and a corresponding decline of liberal arts.” At Douglass and Sarah Lawrence, the following majors did not exist: business, physical education, or criminal justice. In the interview, Cobb lamented this trend away from liberal arts education at CSUF, and explained the importance of it: “What is the real reason for going to college? It’s an individual enrichment…I do not think the curriculum should be vocational, but should be a liberal arts curriculum as much as possible…Our students graduating now are going to be world citizens.”
When Cobb came to CSUF, there was no student housing, no dormitories on campus. She worked to obtain funds for the construction of the first student residences on the campus. This student apartment complex has since been named in her honor. Cobb's presidency at Cal State Fullerton was notable for her success in obtaining funds for the construction of several new buildings on the campus. These included the Engineering Building, and the Computer Science Building constructed with state funds and the Ruby Gerontology Center, which was the first building on the campus constructed entirely with private donations. In addition, much of the planning for the Science Laboratory Center, now Dan Black Hall, was done while Cobb was president.
She retired in 1990, at the age of 66. Following her retirement from the presidency at Cal State Fullerton, Cobb was named CSU Trustee Professor at Cal State Los Angeles. In this position for several years she led a number of efforts to encourage minority middle school and high school students to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. She also was named to the Caltech Board of Trustees, and currently is a Life Trustee at Caltech.
Speaking of how she managed, as an African American woman, to accomplish so much in her life, Cobb says, “The bias and the prejudice that exists, and it’s happened to me and does now exist—energizes me rather than immobilizes me. To the degrees that young or old or whatever people can use that as a stimulus rather than as a barrier, the better off they are.”
|Dr. Cobb in the Fullerton Arboretum.|