Location: the University of Chicago
Artist: Preston Jackson
Georgiana Rose Simpson (1865-1944) made history as the first African-American woman to graduate with a Ph.D in 1921. Simpson left Washington D.C. in 1907 to pursue a Bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago with the goal of furthering her interests in German language and literature. Despite facing racism and discrimination throughout her academic career, Simpson went on to earn three degrees from the University of Chicago. Simpson received her doctoral degree in German from the University of Chicago in 1921.
Simpson was born in Washington, D.C. on 31 Mar 1865, eldest daughter of David and Catherine Simpson, where she attended public school. She later received training to teach in city elementary schools at Miner Norman School in Washington, DC, and started teaching in 1885. During this time, she taught within German immigrant communities. She was encouraged to continue learning and to formally study German in college by one of her former teachers, Dr Lucy E. Moton.
Simpson enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1907, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in German in 1911. To avoid the pervasive racism on campus, she finished her studies mainly through summer and correspondence courses. She completed her master's degree with her thesis, The Phonology of Merigarto which examined an early Middle High German poem. Simpson was also teaching at Dunbar High School (Washington, DC) during her post-graduate years. At age 55, she completed her dissertation, Herder's Conception of "Das Volk", and received her PhD in German on June 14, 1921.
Simpson and her achievements have been discussed in the context of the civil rights movements during segregation. She experienced racial prejudice very early on in her enrolment at the University of Chicago, particularly in housing; that she was invited to reside in the women's dormitory was met with protest from white students. She was initially asked to leave the women's dormitory by Sophonisba Breckinridge, who headed the residence hall, but Simpson refused. Breckinridge reversed her decision so that Simpson could remain, but she was overruled by university president Harry Pratt Judson, who asked Simpson to leave, to which she complied.Consequently, Simpson took her courses during the summer to avoid further racially motivated conflicts with the predominantly white, southern student body. Furthermore, a letter from the Frederick Douglas Centre was sent to President Judson condemning their action to remove Simpson:
Simpson was the first black woman to be awarded a doctoral degree in the United States. She returned to Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. to teach as most universities did not hire black women outside of home economics courses at this time.
In 2017, the Monumental Women Project, co-founded by Asya Akca and Shae Omonijo, honored Simpson by commissioning a bust of her in the Reynolds Club at the University of Chicago, which was placed directly across from a relief that honors President Judson.