Nobody knows if Georgiana Simpson realized she was becoming a part of history when she was kicked out of her dorm in the summer of 1907. Simpson was an African American student who had just enrolled for a BA degree. She moved into Green Hall, a women’s dormitory, to the protests of several white Southern residents. When the head of the hall decided that Simpson could stay, five of the protesting students moved out. Upon the return of then-president Harry Pratt Judson from his summer vacation, the decision was reversed and it was Miss Simpson who had to find residence off campus.
This is the beginning of one of the many stories told by the University’s Special Collections Research Center in their exhibition “Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870–1940.” Crumpled notes and 100-year-old books supplement photos and placards which tell the stories of African American students who, along with a few enlightened faculty members and administrators, pushed the University to be a leader in affirming equal rights.
It was an uphill battle: many African American students, including Simpson, took summer courses and worked by correspondence, fighting their way into academia with intelligence, will, and a few friends on the inside. The picture brightened slowly: in 1923, Ernest DeWitt Burton became the president of the University and directly addressed the issue of social integration. Under his leadership, committees were formed that voted to admit African Americans to the dormitories. African American students began to participate in extra-curricular activities alongside white students. By 1943, the University had awarded at least 45 PhD degrees to African Americans—more than any other school in the world.
Georgiana Simpson’s story ends happily. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1911. She returned to the University of Chicago and more turmoil: the Chicago race riots of 1919 happened during one of the summers of her residence. Simpson studied German philology under Martin Schütze, publishing a dissertation entitled “Herder’s Conception of Das Volk.” In 1921, she was one of three African American women who earned PhDs—they were the first African American women to do so. She joined the faculty of Howard University in 1931 and taught there until 1939.
Simpson is one of the many African American intellectuals who passed through the University of Chicago. To discover more stories like hers, visit the exhibition at Regenstein Library through February 27. More information about the exhibition can be found at the University’s news page, the University of Chicago Magazine, and the University of Chicago Chronicle.