Georgiana Simpson

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Georgiana Rose Simpson
Photograph of Simpson in 1921, wearing academic dress for her graduation from the University of Chicago
Simpson in 1921, wearing academic dress for her graduation from the University of Chicago
Born 1865
Died 1944 (aged 78–79)
Nationality American
Occupation Professor
Years active 1915–1944
Academic background
Alma mater University of Chicago[1]
Thesis 'Herder's Conception of "Das Volk"' (1921)
Academic work
Discipline Philologist
Sub-discipline German language
Institutions Howard University[1]

Georgiana Rose Simpson (1865–1944) was a philologist and the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in the United States. Simpson received her doctoral degree in German from the University of Chicago in 1921.

Early life and education[edit]

Simpson was born in Washington, D.C. on 31 Mar 1865, eldest daughter of David and Catherine Simpson, where she attended public school.[2] She later received training to teach in city elementary schools at Miner Normal School in Washington, D.C., and started teaching in 1885.[3][4] During this time, she taught within German immigrant communities.[3] She was encouraged to continue learning and to formally study German in college by one of her former teachers, Dr. Lucy E. Moten.[2]

Simpson enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1907, and received a bachelor of arts degree in German in 1911.[2] To avoid the pervasive racism on campus, she finished her studies mainly through summer and correspondence courses.[1][4] She completed her master's degree in 1920 with her thesis, The Phonology of Merigarto which examined an early Middle High German poem.[1] Simpson was also teaching at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. during her post-graduate career. At age 55, she completed her dissertation, Herder's Conception of "Das Volk", and received her PhD in German on June 14, 1921.[5]

Experience and contributions during segregation[edit]

A letter condemning the removal of Simpson from Univ. of Chicago campus housing

Simpson and her achievements have been discussed in the context of the United States civil rights movement during segregation. She experienced racial prejudice very early on in her enrollment 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.[6] She was initially asked to leave the women's dormitory by Sophonisba Breckinridge, who headed the residence hall, but Simpson refused.[6] Breckinridge reversed her decision to allow her to remain, but was overruled by university president Harry Pratt Judson, who asked Simpson to leave, to which she complied.[7] Consequently, Simpson took her courses during the summer to avoid further racially motivated conflicts with the predominantly white, southern student body.[2] Furthermore, a letter from the Frederick Douglass 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.[8][9] After receiving her PhD, she along with black scholars Sadie Tanner Mossell, Eva B. Dykes,[note 1] and Anna Julia Cooper who also received doctoral degrees around the same time, were "...not immediately improved by their accomplishments" due to discrimination.[8][10] In the case of Simpson, 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.[10] Simpson also wrote a letter to W.E.B. Dubois in 1936 inquiring about an encyclopedic project and how she may contribute an article on the "Negro dialect" or on the "philosophy of Negro folk literature."[11] Her final major publication was a translation of a French work, detailing the biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution.[1]

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.[4]


  1. ^ Dykes was the first to complete her doctoral requirements and the third to receive her doctoral degree in the U.S.[8][9]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Future Intellectuals: Georgiana Simpson (AB 1911, PhD 1921)". Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago 1870–1940. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago. Retrieved 13 February 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d Jordan, John H. (2013). Black Americans 17th Century to 21st Century: Black Struggles and Successes. Trafford Publishing. p. 258. ISBN 1-4907-1733-1. 
  3. ^ a b Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2011). Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513–2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 267. ISBN 0-307-59342-8. 
  4. ^ a b c Bowean, Lolly (27 November 2017). "U. of C. statue gives black scholar her place in history". Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  5. ^ May, Vivian M. (2012). Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction. Routledge. pp. 18, 192. ISBN 1-135-91155-X. 
  6. ^ a b Johnson, Joan Marie (2010). Southern Women at the Seven Sister Colleges: Feminist Values and Social Activism, 1875–1915. University of Georgia Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-8203-3468-5. 
  7. ^ a b "The Social Question – Round One". Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago 1870–1940. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago. Retrieved 13 February 2016. 
  8. ^ a b c Potter, Joan (2014). African American Firsts : Famous, Little-known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America (Fourth edition ; fully revised and updated. ed.). Kensington Publishing Corp. pp. 40–41. ISBN 0-7582-9242-2. 
  9. ^ a b Gates, Henry Louis; Wolf, Julie. "Who Was the 1st Black Female Ph.D.?". The Root. Univision Communications. Retrieved 14 February 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Wilson, Francille Rusan (2006). The segregated scholars : Black social scientists and the creation of Black labor studies, 1890–1950. Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press. pp. 113, 210. ISBN 0-8139-2550-9. 
  11. ^ "Letter from Georgiana R. Simpson to W. E. B. Du Bois, March 26, 1936". Special Collections and University Archives. University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Retrieved 13 February 2016.