Gloria Carpenter (Girton ’45)

Gloria Cumper (née Carpenter) is an incredibly important person in Black Cantab History seeing as she is Cambridge’s first Black female graduate.

It is important to take the time to note that Amy Louisa King, had actually predated Carpenter and read Medieval and Modern Languages at Girton from 1903-1906 and she is credited with being the first black woman to study at Cambridge. As a woman she was not yet allowed to be awarded a university degree and was instead given a college certificate, hence why Gloria Carpenter is called the first Black female graduate.

Gloria Carpenter was born in Jamaica in 1922 and went on to study Law at Girton College in 1945. While still in Jamaica, Carpenter was so brilliant that her teachers believed she was cheating because they could not believe that she would always get every answer correct.  

Carpenter’s father was one of the construction workers on the Panama Canal and using the funds from such a dangerous job, sent his daughter to be educated in England where Carpenter then attended the Mary Datchelor School in London. Carpenter received her first degree from the University of Toronto during World War II. In the immediate aftermath, Carpenter then came to Cambridge to continue her studies and achieved a starred first, a remarkable feat considering the environment she was subject to. 

Patricia Cumper, daughter of Gloria Carpenter and another stellar Black Cantab, wrote and published a book on her mother’s extraordinary life entitled One Bright Child (1998). Cumper ensures to grant her mother the admiration and appreciation for all her incredible accomplishments and everything that had transpired when she returned to Jamaica. She emphasises two feats that her mother was most proud of, one being the revoking of the Bastardy Act which previously allowed men to ignore any children born out of wedlock they had fathered. Carpenter’s work on this changed the law so men had to acknowledge these children which caused outrage but was a necessary step on the path towards progress. Carpenter also successfully set up a family court which alleviated any chances of hostilities if one needed to get support for their own family.

It is important to note that she led the charge for these necessary changes to Jamaican law. In her daughter’s book One Bright Child, Patricia Cumper details the backlash Carpenter experienced by pushing for these modifications but she also highlights the triumph her mother felt when she accomplished her goals (Cumper 1998). Carpenter was also prominent social reformer and made sure to devote lots of her time to volunteer work. She was also extremely involved in helping to set up the Law Faculty at the University of West Indies in Jamaica. 

She told her daughter stories about her life at Girton. One of which being that her clothes were always fancier than those of her classmates, due to the war in England being the reason for widespread rationing. This led to a lot of her friends wanting to borrow her fashionable clothes!

Carpenter’s daughter states that in an interesting twist the “business of race was not difficult for her [Gloria]”. In part, because she eventually ended up marrying an Englishman but also because “she did not want to acknowledge it as a handicap”. From this, a significant observation can be drawn about the ways in which race and class intersect. Perhaps Gloria Carpenter did not want to acknowledge the difficulties she faced as a result of race but it is important to recognize that with many identities comes many different experiences.

In Carpenter’s case, the aforementioned borrowing of her clothes and her marriage to a white Englishman, set her aside as someone to be perceived differently. As human beings we are multidimensional with many overlapping and sometimes conflicting identities. With Gloria Carpenter and the way in which she interacted with the world, it is perhaps an instance of the intersection of her race and class leading to a very unique experience. 

Still, Patricia Cumper is transparent that race did indeed serve as an obstacle in her mother’s life and it was especially clear in the treatment her mother received at the hands of her father’s family, but Gloria never let that hold her back. With this, I am cognizant of the triumphalist narratives that are often common when discussing issues of race.

There is a mindset that exists that those who overcome the obstacles presented by racism are largely successful solely due to their determination but this is not the case. It is not because they didn’t allow racism to hold them back but rather due to a combination of various, unrelated factors. Those who do not succeed in similar situations are deemed to not be working hard enough or not putting in enough effort and this is extremely incorrect and unfair to say.

The unfortunate reality is that we live in a highly hierarchical and racist society. Those who push past that are truly incredible but that doesn’t make those who don’t any less extraordinary. It is important to shed light on these triumphalist narratives that can often slip by undetected and just simply mentioning those who have been stifled and limited by racism is inherently powerful. 

Remarkable does not even begin to cover the story of Gloria Carpenter and from that, one can extricate the wonderful narrative of familial legacy. Carpenter was a trailblazer in many regards but to see a situation in which she, along with her daughter, created a familial legacy is beautiful to see. Familial legacies within elite institutions is an occurrence commonly associated with older, white, aristocratic families.

Gloria Carpenter and her daughter Patricia Cumper, both of whom were members of Girton College, fly in the face of such outdated assumptions and have proven that within a generally short amount of time it is possible to craft something beautiful and lasting for future generations. Gloria Carpenter may have been the first black female graduate in 1945 but she is nowhere near being the last. It is uplifting to witness the amount of black women who continue to excel at this university and it is inspiring to witness the future familial legacies that are already taking place.

With the Cumpers, we see a wonderful example of transforming a site of exclusion into one suited for them and their needs. With them, we see how quickly an institution like the University of Cambridge can become a locale for black families to build exciting and influential legacies.