Oliver Cromwell Cox, black sociologist and Marxist author, was born on August 24, 1901, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies, to William Raphael and Virginia (Blake) Cox. Although poverty and illiteracy were common among the native population in Port-of-Spain, the Cox family was financially secure. William Cox held an important position in society and served as captain of a government revenue schooner and, later, as a customs and excise officer. The children also benefitted from their father’s “appropriate skin complexion,” since light-skinned mulattos were more highly regarded in Trinidad.
For primary school, Oliver Cox attended the Saint Thomas Boys’ School where he received a classical education under the supervision of his uncle Reginald V. Vidale, who served as headmaster and later rose to the position of inspector of schools, city councilman, and mayor of Port-of-Spain. Reginald, who had Oliver under his tutelage most of the time, served as his role model and inspired him toward academia. William Cox insisted that his children (particularly the males) go to the United States to receive a good education, and he provided them financial support for the initial passage. Upon arrival in the United States, however, most of the Cox children had to provide for themselves.
Oliver Cox moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1919 during the racial tensions, riots, and fighting of the “Red Summer.” However, he was not involved as he was more concerned with his academic pursuits—his education in Trinidad was regarded as not equivalent so he had to return to high school. Following his graduation from the Central YMCA High School in 1923, Cox attended Chicago’s Lewis Institute (now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology) where he earned a two-year degree in 1925. He then attained a law degree from Northwestern University three years later.
Although Cox intended to practice law and return to Trinidad, his plans were curtailed when in 1929 he was stricken with polio, which disabled him and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Thereafter, following a year and a half recovery, he decided to return to academia and entered the economics department of the University of Chicago in 1930. Following the completion of his thesis—titled “Workingmen’s Compensation in the U.S., with Critical Observations and Suggestions”—and graduation with an M.A. in economics in 1932, Cox began course work in sociology from the same university in 1933. He received his Ph.D. in sociology on August 26, 1938; his dissertation was titled “Factors Affecting the Marital Status of Negroes in the United States.”
Due to his race and in spite of his advanced educational attainment, Cox would not be hired at a white school, so he was forced to look for work at a black university where salaries were low, teaching loads were rigorous, and there were very few resources for independent research. His first full-time position was at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, from 1938 to 1944. There he served as professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Social Research. In 1942 in the Social Forces journal, he published “The Modern Caste School of Race Relations,” an article that challenged the predominant view of black-white race relations in the United States as constituting a caste system.
In 1944 Cox took a position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and primarily taught courses in economics and sociology. Because Tuskegee was chiefly a vocational institution, he had very few graduate students interested in sociology. Moreover, those who were interested in sociology preferred its practical application in communities to Cox’s penchant for theory. Still, during his time at Tuskegee, Cox furthered his reputation by publishing articles in American and international journals and completing his most famous and controversial book, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (1948). In it, he argued that there was a difference between political and social classes, and the latter were distinct to capitalist societies.
Although Cox’s critiques of capitalism and race relations in his works led some reviewers to criticize him as a “Marxist” who espoused “communist propaganda,” he got in the most trouble at Tuskegee for referring to Booker T. Washington as a “Quisling,” or a puppet of the ruling class. While he was not forced out of the university, Cox eventually decided to look for a school that was more supportive of the social sciences. Thus, when he applied for a position at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri, he said in a letter to the school’s president, “since there has been an increasingly inconsequential emphasis on the social sciences here, I should be happy to make a change.” Cox was accepted, and at the age of forty-eight, he transferred to Lincoln University in 1949.
By this time, Cox had published more than twenty-two articles in the major professional journals of his field, was a participating member of the Southern Sociological Society, the National Education Association, the American Sociological Society, and the Society for Social Research, and had earned the George Washington Carver Award for Caste, Class, and Race. Over the next twenty-one years, he continued this trend of accomplishment in the face of limited institutional support and published several more articles in professional journals and three more books: The Foundations of Capitalism (1959), Capitalism and American Leadership (1962), and Capitalism as a System (1964).
In 1970, nearing the State of Missouri’s mandatory retirement age of seventy, Cox decided to leave Lincoln University. However, at the invitation of the chairman of the sociology department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, he became a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Sociology at that school. In this capacity he was only required to assist students working on dissertations concerning race relations and teach one seminar per semester.
As a visiting professor, Cox experienced many problems at Wayne State. He did not have much contact with his colleagues in the sociology department, was purportedly deficient of pedagogical skills, and was probably overly demanding of graduate students. Furthermore, “revolutionary Blacks” considered him an apologist because his works consistently opposed social change via black nationalism and pluralism and espoused black assimilation. Marxist students also disagreed with his emphasis on the positive and negative aspects of both Marx and capitalism. However, while at Wayne State, Cox did publish several articles—most notably “The Question of Pluralism” in the British journal Race and “Jewish Self-Interest in Black Pluralism”—and completed his final book, Race Relations: Elements and Social Dynamics, which was published posthumously in 1976.
Much of the recognition of Cox’s work has come from black social scientists. In 1968 the Association of Social and Behavioral Scientists awarded him the first W. E. B. DuBois Award, and he was the foremost recipient of the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award by the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1971. This latter honor was changed by the ASA in 2006 to the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award. He died on September 4, 1974, in Detroit, Michigan. He was never married. The location of his burial is not known.