John Elihue Codwell, Sr., educator, scholar, and philanthropist, was born in Houston in 1905 to migrant James Marshall Codwell (of Navasota, Texas) and the former Pearl E. Cooper, possibly from Walker County. Formerly a school teacher in Navasota, James M. Codwell moved to Houston between 1900 and 1902 and became editor of the Western Star newspaper shortly thereafter. Pearl Cooper Codwell, also an educator, taught music at the Houston Baptist Academy (also known as Houston College and a forerunner of Houston Junior College for Negroes) in the Fourth Ward. The two married sometime between 1903 and 1905 and eventually rented a home on La Branch Steet in the Third Ward. According to city directories, however, Pearl Codwell, after the birth of son John, continued to work outside the household as a music instructor and held a room at the Houston Baptist Academy. One year after John’s birth, Pearl Codwell passed away, possibly from tuberculosis, according to grandson John Codwell, Jr.
Newspaperman James M. Codwell returned to Navasota with his young son to join his brother-in-law and sister, landowners and farmers John M. and Patsy D. Codwell Adkins. As typical stepwise migrants who traveled back and forth between the rural and urban South in search for work, the Codwells soon returned to Houston, with the Adkins family, around 1907. James M. Codwell and son John moved in with his sister and brother-in-law who bought a home in the Fourth Ward on O’Neill Street. Tragedy struck the family again though, as James M. Codwell died suddenly at the age of forty-seven in August 1914, leaving his seven-year-old son, John Elihue, an orphan. John E. Codwell remained in the care of his aunt and uncle and ultimately inherited their home.
Codwell, an outstanding student and athlete, graduated from Colored High School in 1922 or 1923. He then entered Howard University and immersed himself in academics and athletics. He played baseball and football as well as performed as a student and a campus mentor. While at Howard, he retained close ties with many of his Colored High classmates, including Thelma Patton Law, Thelma Scott Bryant, and Thelma Hainsworth Young. All would make important contributions to Houston as members of the city’s New Negro Movement of the postwar era. Codwell earned a B.A. in physical science in 1927.
Codwell returned to Houston to teach and coach high school sports. E. O. Smith, the principal of the new Phillis Wheatley High School, hired him to serve as the school’s director of athletics in 1927. As the school’s first athletic coach, Codwell coached the track, basketball, and football teams. He helped establish the Wheatley High versus Yates High Thanksgiving Day football rivalry, later known as the Turkey Day Classic, an event that would become, according to retired school administrator John E. Codwell, Jr., the most widely-celebrated high school football game rivalry in the United States, with attendance at the games reaching 35,000.
Following E. O. Smith’s death in 1945, Codwell, whom Smith named as assistant principal years earlier, became the second principal of Wheatley High. In 1940s Houston, the Turkey Day Classic had already begun to attract the attention of sports columnists around the country and highlighted Codwell’s work. For Codwell, however, academic prowess meant earning a terminal degree.
Beginning in 1936, Codwell enrolled in the University of Michigan for graduate school each summer. A special state fund put numerous African-American educators through graduate school, even while the South denied them the opportunity to earn advanced degrees in their home states. Codwell earned an M.A. degree and, in 1948, a Ph.D., becoming the first Houston Independent School District (HISD) administrator to do so. He continued his research in kinesiology and education and published often in the Journal of Negro Education. Codwell also taught as a visiting professor and lecturer in kinesiology and education at a number of colleges, including Texas Southern University, Wiley College, Prairie View A&M University, and Houston Community College.
In the last half of his life as an educator, scholar, and philanthropist, Codwell’s accolades continued. In 1959 HISD moved him to Yates Senior High School to serve as the school’s principal, a move that upset many supporters of former Yates principal William Holland, who was demoted to Ryan Middle School for routinely criticizing the district for its neglect of the African-American community. When the district finally desegregated its schools in the mid-1960s, Codwell decided to leave the district and took another position with another employer. In 1964 he became the first African-American professional hired by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and was named associate director of the regional accreditation board based in Atlanta, Georgia. A few years later he returned to the HISD to serve in the capacity of assistant superintendent, first as head of HISD Area IV under the leadership of superintendent George Garver, and later superintendent of instruction under HISD superintendent Billy Regan. He retired from the district in 1976 but remained an advocate and mentor.
Students, colleagues, and friends remembered Codwell for his tireless commitment to the African-American community. The list of former Wheatley High School students under his leadership as coach, assistant principal, principal, or while in an advisory capacity, include jazz musician Illinois Jacquet, former United States representatives Barbara Jordan and George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, and Brown University president Ruth Simmons. Codwell also helped form numerous social clubs and served on boards that pushed academic success. In 1927 he and others established the Alpha Eta Lambda alumnae chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity in Prairie View, Texas, and in 1951 he helped establish the Nu Boule chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, the country’s first black Greek-lettered fraternal society. He also held prominent positions in the Houston YMCA, Boy Scouts of America, the United Negro College Fund, Baylor College of Medicine Research Committee, and the Sickle Cell Foundation of Texas. In addition, for many years he served on the board of trustees and as Sunday School superintendent at Antioch Baptist Church.
Codwell married Louisiana native and Wiley College alumna Vera Gaines, also an educator, in 1930. They had one son, John Codwell, Jr., born in 1933, who also graduated from the University of Michigan. Sources credit his son, who played on the varsity basketball team, with being the first African-American athlete from any Big Ten school. John E. Codwell, Sr., died on December 28, 1983, in Detroit, Michigan.