In Search of Moloto Oshodi, from Mount Holyoke to Yorubaland

As my students and I have been studying early African American and African figures in the history of South Hadley and Mount Holyoke, we were fascinated to learn from Ms. Deborah Richards (Head of Archives and Special Collections) that a historical researcher ( Adenyika Ogunkoya ) had brought to the attention of the Archives an important discovery: a young woman, from West Africa, Miss Omoloto (“Moloto”) O. Oshodi, resided in 1899 or 1900 in Wilder Hall at Mount Holyoke College. According to the 1900 census, she was single, born August 1876, in West Africa, age 23, her occupation listed as “maid,’ having arrived in the United States around 1889. Mary Wilder Hall was constructed in 1899, following the disastrous fire at the College in 1896, so was newly occupied.

1900 census. listing Moloto O Oshodi, age 23, as a maid, in Wilder Hall, Mount Holyoke College
Mary Wilder Hall, Mount Holyoke College. Americhrome postcard

Her Time in the United States

Immigration records indicate that Moloto Osodi (written as “Molot Osod? or perhaps Osodi”) arrived in New York on he Cunard Line ship Etruria from Liverpool, UK, on 17 December 1888. She is listed as a 12 year old “maid” traveling with the prominent Southern Baptist missionary Rev. William Joshua David, age 38, his new wife Jane, age 28, and their daughters Laurie? (i year, 8 months) and Justa ( five months). The children were been born in Africa, as was an 18 month old boy, Earle Lobant (?) traveling with this group.

1888. 17 December, Passenger manifest of the Cunard line ship Etruia, lists Miss Osodi in the party of Rev. William David.

Rev. William Joshua David was a missionary with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, from Meridian, Mississippi, who traveled to West Africa to revive the Yoruba Mission in Nigeria from 1875 to 1888, assisted initially by the important African American missionary Rev. William Colley. He arrived in Yoruba regions in June 1875 to reconstitute the Baptist church in the wake of the Yoruba civil war, baptizing evangelists in Lagos, Abeokuta, Oyo and Ogbomoso. Rev. David’s wife Nanie Bland David died on May 28, 1885, and is said with her dying breath to have urged her husband to continue his missionary work in Africa.

Rev. David, after a mission career in Lagos and elsewhere in Yorubaland, went on furlough back to the U.S. in 1888. This time period coincided with a schism with African-led segments of the Church, led by Moses Ladejo Stone (1850-1913). Rev. David did not subsequently return to Nigeria. Once returned to the United States, he established and led the Fifteenth Street Baptist Church in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, and died in 1919 in Houston, Texas.

Peter Weis, archivist at Northfield Mount Hermon (formerly Northfield Seminary), about 40 miles north of South Hadley, reports that Miss Oshodi attended Northfield Seminary from Fall 1895 to Spring 1899. He writes:

Northfield Seminary, c 1906

“Moloto Oshodi (#1929N, x1895-1899) was indeed a student in the Northfield Seminary. In this era the Seminary had four “academic” grades (Junior, Junior Middle, Senior Middle, Senior) and two “preparatory” grades for students not yet ready to undertake the academic course. Oshodi was in the first preparatory class for two years, the second preparatory class for one, and in the Junior class for one…. She did not complete the diploma course. It’s worth noting that as the school was attended almost exclusively by students from straitened socio-economic backgrounds, only about 10% of matriculating students completed the diploma course.”

Before attending Northfield Seminary, Miss Oshodi attended Lincoln School, “for two or three years” in Meridian, Mississippi, an institution founded by the American Missionary Society in 1888, the same year Miss Oshodi was brought to the United States. She appears to have continued work for Rev. David and his family as a domestic servant during this period.

In later years, Meridian, Mississippi would serve as an important cradle of the Civil Rights movement, anchored to a significant extent in the city’s Black Baptist churches. It would be interesting to know if during her six or so years in the city 1888-1895), Miss Oshodi ( came into contact with any of the African American figures who would play formative roles in the local Black culture of resistance and self-affirmation.

The recommendation and application form to Northfield indicate that Miss Oshodi’s late father was “a farmer and a trader.” He was initially Muslim, but converted to Christianity. According to a letter, before his death pleaded with Rev. David to secure a Christian education for his daughter. Evidently her name in Lagos, her place of birth, was only “Moloto,” (or perhaps Omoloto) but Rev. David decided that it was best to give her the surname “Oshodi,” her father’s name.

Speculatively, might Miss Oshodi’s family have been related to Chief Oshodi Landuji Tapa (1789-1866), a minister in the Oba’s court in Lagos?

Perhaps after leaving Northfield Seminary, Miss Oshodi came to work at Mount Holyoke, with the plan of earning enough money to fund her return passage to Nigeria. Perhaps she continued her education through private tutoring while working at the college.

Her Time Back in Yorubaland, Nigeria

A 1979 paper by historian Babautunde Agiri records that three years after she appeared in the 1900 census, in 1903, “Miss Moloto Osodi” arrived in Ogbomoso, an important Yoruba city, now in Oyo state in southwestern Nigeria.. She applied for a teaching position in the local Baptist Training School. She had, the account notes, been taken to America by the Rev. William J David, and been educated in the United States for ten years. As Michael Ogbeidi (2013) puts it, “Reverends W. J. David and C. E. Smith encouraged Miss Moloto Oshodi and Nathaniel David Oyerinde to acquire higher education in the United States during the late 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries.” (2013: 121)

From Ogbomoso, around 1903, Miss Osodi “was later transferred to the Baptist Girls’ School in Oyo,” the ancient Yoruba capital of the Oyo Empire. (Agiri’s source for these events are 1902 and 1903 diary entries by Rev. C.E Smith, who served in Ogbomoso from 1885-1906.)

Osodi or Oshodi is a familiar Nigerian surname, found, I believe, in both Yoruba and Igbo- speaking communities. (Nigeria’s most prominent documentary photographer, George Osodi, hails from Ogwashi-Uku, a predominantly Igbo-speaking community in Delta State.) It is possible that Miss Moloto Oshodi came from a high ranking family in Yorubaland and that Rev. David, when he returned to the United States in late 1888, brought 12 year old with him, both as a maid and in anticipation of her future role in evangelizing Yoruba-speaking communities.

Miss Osodi did not matriculate at the College and does not appear in any list as a Mount Holyoke College staff member, but Ms. Richards notes that the College did not permit students to employ private maids. Two other maids, Mary Cunningham and Mabel S Hayden, are listed in the census adjacent to her, also residing in Wilder Hall.

As of this writing we have not seen post 1903 accounts of Miss Osodi’s life in Nigeria.
We hope that future research will cast more light on Miss Oshodi’s childhood, her education in the United States, and her subsequent career back in Nigeria.


BABATUNDE AGIRI . CHIEF N.D. OYERINDE AND THE POLITICAL SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF OGBOMOSO 1916-1951. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol. 10, No. 1 (DECEMBER 1979), pp. 86-112.

Charles Maddry. Day Dawn in Yoruba Land. Broadman Press, 1939/

Michael M. Ogbeidi Nigerian returnees from the United States and educational development in colonial Southern Nigeria.  Revisita de Historia Actual (RHA) no 11. 2013. pp. 121-131

Lagos Baptists in the Development of the Nigerian Baptist Convention

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