Since 1854, Omaha has had countless firsts, including the first residents in the city (William and Racheal Snowden in 1854), the first boulevard in the city (Florence Boulevard in 1892), and the first roller coaster in the city (Trans-Mississippi Expo in 1898). This is a biography of Comfort Baker, the first African American woman to graduate from high school in Omaha.
Comfort Baker, born on February 15, 1870 in New Bern, North Carolina. Her father died when she was very young, and at the age of 12, her mother moved her to Raleigh. When she was 13 her mother died, and Comfort was orphaned. An aunt and uncle in Omaha adopted her, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Hendricks.
By 1885 she was in the 8th grade at the Central Grade School at 22nd and Dodge Streets. That year she was noticed by the Omaha Daily Herald for never missing a day of school in all the time she went there. However, after going to school through school that year her uncle died, and “a mental affliction on the part of her aunt” left Comfort homeless.
Starting studies at Omaha High School the next year, Comfort worked as a “domestic” for the family of Colonel Watson B. Smith (1837-1881) and his wife Fannie (1844-1932) to support herself in school. During this time, Miss Baker was a writer for Thomas Mahammitt’s The Enterprise newspaper, a Black newspaper that ran in Omaha for some time, and in 1887 she volunteered as the “corresponding secretary” for a new St. Phillips Episcopal Church guild led by Cyrus Bell, a noted African American leader in Omaha, in support of the Rev. John Albert Williams, a civil rights leader in the city. After quitting the Smith household in April 1889, she stayed with Black families in Omaha in order to focus on her studies and “secure the highest honors possible.”
In 1889, Miss Baker became the first African American female to graduate from Omaha High School. A short feature in the Omaha Daily World on June 27, 1889, highlighted her struggles and successes towards graduation. In a large ceremony for 50 total graduates held at the Grand Opera House downtown, she graduated with honors. During the event, Miss Baker was one of three speakers, and she read an original essay called “One More Plea for the Negro.” A school newspaper reported, “Her strong voice and clear articulation enabled her to be heard from all parts of the house. She was interrupted again and again by storms of applause.” Awaiting her honors was a cold announcement by the newspaper though, which announced, “She has secured her education without means and passes into the wide and unsympathetic world without a dollar to her name.”
With plans to go to a normal school in Tennessee, Miss Baker wanted to become a teacher. Faced with her economic hardship though, she needed support. In September 1889, the Daily World gladly announced, “Miss Comfort Baker, the colored graduate, will go to some school in the east or south and will be assisted for her search by a wealthy lady of Omaha.” Miss Belle H. Smith, a math teacher at Omaha High School, paid for Miss Baker’s way to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Also in September 1889, the Omaha Bee said “Miss Comfort Baker, who graduated in the 1889 high school class, has entered Fisk University for a collegiate course, after which she will devote her talents to the education of the colored people of the south.”
In 1893, she graduated from Fisk with honors.
In 1896, Miss Baker came back to visit Omaha. A report from the Omaha Bee announced, “Since leaving the university she has engaged in teaching at Corsicana, Tex.” Located 60 miles from Dallas, Corsicana had a substantial Black population when she got there. Originally reliant on the cotton industry, the community grew into oil and gas production around the time Miss Baker arrived. She might have been brought to Corsicana by fellow Fisk University graduate G.W. Jackson, who established the “Fred Douglas High School” there in the 1880s. This segregated school served Black students from Dallas before there was a school for them there.
Moving to El Paso about a decade later, Miss Baker was a “grade teacher” at the Frederick Douglass Grammar and High School, the “Negro school” for El Paso’s segregated public schools. She was listed as a seventh and eighth grade teacher in 1914, and remained with the district until 1917.
She and her husband are gone but cannot be forgotten. Although they had no children of their own, they were guiding lights in the lives of many boys and girls with problems of life.—Arizona Sun, May 27, 1949
At the end of the school year, on June 14, 1917, Comfort Baker married Rev. Allen Caldwell (1863-1938) of Douglas, Arizona. She taught in Texas for 24 years. With a church in the Mexican border town, Rev. Caldwell moved his new bride back to town. With Buffalo soldiers stationed at the nearby Fort Huachuca, Douglas had a substantial Black population. A year later, they lived in Pheonix. There, Rev. Caldwell was the pastor of the Lucy Phillips Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), aka the Phillips Temple. The couple lived in the church parsonage next door at 112 South 7th Street.
In an obituary from the Arizona Sun newspaper, the writer said Mrs. Baker Caldwell taught for a total of 52 years, with 21 years in Phoenix. Mrs. Caldwell was the first African American teacher at Phoenix Union High School District.
Records and reports show that Mrs. Caldwell attended a variety of higher education institutions throughout her career, always focused on teaching and improving education, including the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona in Tucson.
In 1918, the year that she arrived in Phoenix, 1918, Mrs. Caldwell established the “Department for Colored Students” in the Phoenix Union High School District. She was the only teacher for the students. In the following years as white supremacy became more powerful in Phoenix, African American students were moved into into two small cottages separated from the main high school campus, and their school was renamed the Phoenix Union Colored High School. After teaching American history, algebra, geometry, Latin, civics, and penmanship for several years as the student population grew, Mrs. Caldwell’s successes led the district to build a new building for the school in 1925, and she was named the first principal. According to another history website, “it was the only high school in the state built explicitly for the segregation of African Americans.”
Mrs. Caldwell retired in 1940.
Comfort died on June 5, 1946 in Phoenix, Arizona, and is buried next to her husband. When she died, Mrs. Caldwell left her home at 1418 East Washington Street in Phoenix to the Phillips Temple CME Church.
In her lifetime, Mrs. Comfort Baker Caldwell was…
- The first African American female graduate of Omaha Public Schools (1889)
- The first African American teacher in Phoenix Union High School District (1918)
- The first African American principal in Phoenix Union High School District (1925)
- The founder of the only school for Black students in Phoenix
As of 2022, Comfort Baker Caldwell has not been acknowledged officially in Omaha for her accomplishments. There is no historical plaque, designation, or honor to her name anywhere in the city.
You Might Like…
- Comfort Baker Caldwell on findagrave.com
- “Our School,” official George Washington Carver High School history
- “Classes for Black students at Phoenix Union High School in 1921, before Carver,” History Adventuring