Who Was the 1st Black Female Ph.D.?

They Did It First: Three women are actually credited with being the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the U.S.

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Georgiana Simpson

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Who was the first African-American woman to receive her Ph.D. degree from an American university?

(Hint: Three pioneers are considered to share this distinction.)

Let’s start with some numbers. In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois published The Talented Tenth. Here he introduced the term by which he meant the “college-bred Negroes,” the race’s “exceptional men” who would lift up and lead the black “masses.” But at the turn of the century, only 3,000 out of 8.9 million African Americans had graduated college, with another 1,000 enrolled. His Talented Tenth was, more accurately, the Talented 0.034 percent. The numbers began to creep up slowly, and by the 1920s, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 10,000 African Americans were college-educated, 0.1 percent of the population.

Add to these numbers one more: 3. In 1921 three scholars—Georgiana Simpson (1866-1944; University of Chicago, Ph.D. in German philology), Sadie Mossell Alexander (1898-1989; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D. in economics) and Eva Dykes (1893-1986; Radcliffe College, Ph.D. in English philology)—became the first African-American women to receive their Ph.D.s. Their routine clustering underscores the difficulty of determining exactly who was the first in a field. Dykes completed the requirements first, but Simpson, thanks to an earlier commencement, was the first to get her degree.

Today we’ll focus on Georgiana Simpson, whose 149th birthday we celebrate this week. According to most sources, she was born one year after the Civil War ended, on March 31, 1866 (listed in some sources as 1865), in Washington, D.C. In 1885 Simpson graduated from the Miner Normal School, the training ground for Washington’s black elementary school teachers.

She traveled to Rostock, Germany, in 1896 to study that country’s language and literature. That same decade, Du Bois had studied for two years in Berlin, where, he wrote, “I first met white folk who treated me as a human being. ... ” We can speculate that Simpson’s experience abroad was similar. (Years later, in post-World War I America, with anti-German sentiment raging, Simpson’s loyalties to the United States were questioned because of her academic field.)

She spent her career juggling work and study. In 1901 she took a job teaching German at D.C.’s prestigious Dunbar High School. Summers she spent at Harvard, Clark University and the University of Chicago, where the 41-year-old Simpson enrolled full time in 1907. Although not Chicago’s first black student, her decision to live on campus sparked a protest that ultimately prompted an overhaul of university housing policies. Her presence in the dormitory riled several white Southern women; they wanted her out. The head of the hall, the social reformer Sophonisba Breckinridge, allowed Simpson to stay, saying that no university policy denied her this right. Five women moved out.

Overruling Breckinridge, Chicago’s president, Harry Pratt Judson, insisted that Simpson move off campus, setting the precedent for whites-only living facilities. She relocated but continued her studies, earning her bachelor’s in 1911, her master’s in 1920 and, of course, her Ph.D. in 1921. The housing issue wouldn’t be resolved until 1923, when Judson’s successor, Ernest DeWitt Burton, created an official policy permitting African-American students to live on campus.

Simpson’s race informed her life, but not her scholarship. African-American studies wasn’t yet an accepted discipline, had she desired it as a course of study. Many institutions would not allow a scholar to write about black subjects, unless it was in the historical context of slavery or abolition. Simpson studied in Germany, spoke German and wrote her dissertation on German Romanticism. Once she had a Ph.D., she was free to pursue her own interests, and in 1929 Simpson edited a biography of the Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture.

Likewise, Dykes wrote her dissertation on the English poet Alexander Pope but dedicated her career to scholarship concerning black subjects. Her pioneering work from 1942, The Negro in English Romantic Thought, examined the portrayal and perception of black people in English literature. In a timely coincidence, one of Simpson’s University of Chicago classmates was Carter Woodson, the “father of black history,” whose tireless efforts to bring black history into the academy had great influence on subsequent generations.

Simpson encountered the same obstacles as her fellow firsts Alexander and Dykes. Writes Francille Rusan Wilson in The Segregated Scholars, none of the three was “immediately materially improved by their achievements.” Hindered by the double barrier of race and gender, they couldn’t find work commensurate with their abilities and education.

Perhaps Alexander, despite her credentials as an economist, despite the fact that the future held for her a lifetime of groundbreaking achievements—including first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1927 and first to be appointed to a presidential commission (Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights)—said it best: “All the glory of that occasion faded quickly when I tried to get a position.” The doctor of economics was forced to work outside her field, as an actuary at the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. Similarly, Drs. Simpson and Dykes took jobs at Dunbar High School. Black-university jobs for women outside of home economics and education were nearly nonexistent, and Jim Crow barred African Americans from obtaining professorships anywhere else.

In 1929 the arrival of Mordecai Johnson at Howard University precipitated a shift. Howard’s first black president recruited women for academic professorships. Dykes joined the faculty that year, and Simpson became an associate professor of German in 1931. In 1937, at age 71, she became a full professor, a position she held until her retirement in 1939. Our trinity of Ph.D.s shared far more than a commencement season. They all led lives of firsts, but also frustrations.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Julie Wolf is a freelance writer and editor based outside Boston.

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