100 years ago, Georgiana Simpson made history as the first Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D.

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Breckinridge, PhD 1901, JD 1904, decided Simpson should be allowed to stay, prompting five white women to leave the residence hall. However, then-president Harry Pratt Judson overruled Breckinridge, and forced Simpson to find housing off-campus.

The incident sparked public outcry and a response from multiple advocacy groups, which condemned Judson’s decision. The novelist and activist Celia Parker Woolley wrote to Judson and called on him to reverse his “deplorable” decision, noting that Black students at the University like Simpson were also “southerners” who deserved to have their rights and feelings considered.

“We ask you, sir, why you and others who so constantly defer to ‘southern’ sentiment on this question so invariably ignore the new and more progressive element in the south?” Woolley wrote in August 1907. Judson’s successor, Ernest DeWitt Burton, integrated UChicago dormitories after he took office in 1923.


Simpson remained a student, earning her bachelor’s degree primarily through summer and correspondence courses. Beginning in 1915, she pursued her master’s and doctorate, studying German Romanticism and philology. Her Ph.D. dissertation, written under noted German scholar Martin Schütze, was titled “Herder’s Conception of Das Volk.”

“For a long time, many have tried to understand what makes people [like Simpson] stick with things against the odds, and allows them to deal with really difficult situations but continue to come back,” said Melissa Gilliam, the Ellen H. Block Distinguished Service Professor of Health Justice and Vice Provost of UChicago.

Gilliam wondered if Simpson’s strong sense of purpose allowed her to carry on, in spite of what was happening around her. Today, she said, Simpson’s experience underscores the importance of creating an intellectual community where everyone not only feels safe and welcome, but empowered to…