Students lead effort to honor first black woman to earn a PhD from UChicago

Two UChicago undergraduates are spearheading a project to honor alumna Georgiana Simpson, one of the first black women to receive a PhD in the United States.

Launched by third-years Asya Akca and Shae Omonijo, the Monumental Women Project seeks to honor historical figures who have contributed to the University. For their first project, the students hope by this fall that a bronze bust of Simpson will be installed in the Reynolds Club—the first monument of its kind on campus.

“I think the idea of honoring a woman in an execution of art that isn’t traditionally made to honor women is really big,” said Akca. “I think that presence and air of importance is significant as we honor her.”

Simpson, AB’1911, was 55 years old in 1921 when she became the first black woman to earn a PhD from UChicago. A scholar of German philology, she promoted African American history and literature and later joined the faculty of Howard University in 1931.

Simpson ignited controversy when she attempted to integrate a UChicago dormitory in 1907. While Dean of Women Marian Talbot and her secretary Sophonisba Breckenridge allowed her to do so, President Harry Pratt Judson overturned their decision and asked Simpson to find off-campus housing. In 1923 President Ernest DeWitt Burton allowed black students to live in dormitories.

Simpson is one of the 45 black students who were granted PhDs at UChicago between 1870 and 1940—more than any other university in the country. She was close to many of the University’s prominent black alumni: She had a strong connection to Carter G. Woodson, AB’1908, AM’1908, and exchanged letters with Katherine Dunham, PhB’36. Simpson also engaged with W.E.B. Du Bois and Helen Pitts Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ second wife.

“She was as worthy of being on campus as any other student of her time or even now,” said Omonijo. “I think that’s the permanent purpose of public art, so everyone can see it.”

The life-sized bust of Simpson, by local artist Preston Jackson, will be located in front of Mandel Hall—a location that holds historical significance: The Reynolds Club was once exclusively for male students, and Simpson’s bust will be located across from a relief of President Judson.

“That’s the essence of the piece: to put her in a place where she wouldn’t have been allowed to inhabit in the first place,” said Omonijo, who along with Akca became interested in the topic of University housing during archival research at the University’s Special Collections Research Center. “You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.”

The Monumental Women Project began as a proposal to UChicago’s UnCommon Fund, in which Student Government supports student projects on campus. It also has earned grants from the Provost’s Office, UChicago Arts’ Student Creativity Grants, the Reynolds Club Endowment Fund and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Omonijo and Akca are partnering with Alumni Relations’ Crowdfunding campaign to raise the rest of the money for the Simpson project.

Omonijo and Akca also have begun a Crowdfunding campaign proposing a piece of public art in honor of Talbot.