No reasonable person would deny that education, particularly higher education, is a key indicator of social progress and personal empowerment. As we celebrate Black History Month and the significant achievements of African-Americans, it’s essential to appreciate the first African-American academics, particularly black women.
These women are a handful of remarkable pioneers, not only brilliant, but of titanium resolve and determination. We will look at several key individuals: the first African-American woman to graduate from college, the first three to earn Ph.D. degrees (they all did so the same year), and the first two to earn their medical and law degrees.
The First College Graduate
Ohio’s Oberlin College was the first institution of higher education in the United States to, by overt policy and intention, admit black students, doing so two years after its founding in 1833. Consequently, the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree did so with honors from Oberlin on August 27, 1862.
Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894), the oldest of seven children, was born of freed slaves. Once liberated, her father had moved his family from North Carolina to Oberlin to join its burgeoning black community of both freed and fugitive slaves.
Oberlin had what is likely the first integrated public elementary school. At Oberlin College, Mary Jane was a stand-out student both academically and by reputation. One of her professors, in a letter of reference, said she was “a superior scholar, a good singer, a faithful Christian, and a genteel lady.” He recommended to prospective employers that Mary Jane was worthy of the highest teacher pay afforded to women. Mary Jane’s two sisters both earned their degrees from Oberlin as well.
Upon graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she was hired as a teacher at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, then went to Washington D.C. to teach at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, America’s first public high school for black students. It would later become the prestigious Dunbar High School, where many of the women highlighted in this article attended and taught.
The pioneering Mary Jane served for many years as Dunbar’s first female principal. She continued to teach there until her death. A peer described her as “a woman with a strong, forceful personality, and showed tremendous power for good in establishing high intellectual standards in the public schools.”
Historical side note: Lucy Ann Stanton was the first African-American woman to graduate from a four-year college program, doing so 12 years earlier than Mary Jane Patterson, in 1850. But Lucy Ann only received a certificate of graduation, not a full diploma. This is because she was enrolled in Oberlin’s non-diploma granting women’s program, while Parker was enrolled in the more rigorous men’s school. In addition, 10 years before Patterson earned her diploma, Grace A. Mapps earned a four-year degree from New York Central College, but there is no record of whether this was merely a certificate or an actual diploma. History is rarely simple.
The First Academic Doctors
Who was the first African-American woman to earn the prestigious title of doctor of philosophy, otherwise known as a Ph.D.? There were three African-American women simultaneously working on their Ph.D. degrees at various institutions, and each graduated the same year—1921. They are: Georgiana Simpson (1866-1944), University of Chicago; Sadie Mossell Alexander (1898-1989), University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Dykes (1893-1986), Radcliffe College.
Dykes completed her program requirements first but was the third to receive her degree because of a technicality. She was edged out simply because Georgiana Simpson’s school (the University of Chicago) had the earliest graduation ceremony that spring. Dykes’ Radcliffe College had the latest. The three were separated by mere weeks.
Eva Beatrice Dykes was a high achiever by any measure. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, summa cum laude from Howard University in 1914 and magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1917. The following year, she earned her master’s degree from Radcliffe, then her Ph.D. in 1921 in literature. Her dissertation was on the English poet and satirist Alexander Pope, examining his attitudes about slavery and influence on American writers.
Upon graduation, she taught at Dunbar High School then became an award-winning professor of English at Howard University. She published two academic books, highlighting the literary works of African-Americans for students and general readers. She wrote a regular column for the Seventh-day Adventist Message magazine from 1934 until two years before her death in 1986.
Georgiana Simpson began her graduate work while also teaching at Dunbar High School. She earned her Ph.D. in philology, the study of languages and their written texts. Her concentration was in German.
She resided in the women’s dormitories at the University of Chicago, but was met with complaints by white students. When asked to leave by the director of the residence hall, she refused—but finally acquiesced at the demand of the university’s president.
After graduating, Georgiana returned to Dunbar because no college would hire a black woman to teach anything besides home economics. Even though Simpson taught high school, she continued doing advanced academic work as she could. On March 26, 1936, she wrote a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois agreeing to contribute an article to a massive project he was editing, the “Encyclopedia of the Negro.” She offered to write a philological article on “the Negro dialect” or “the basic philosophy of the Negro folk literature.”
Sadie Mossell Alexander was also extraordinarily accomplished. Not only was she the second African-American woman to receive a Ph.D., doing so in economics, she was the first woman of any ethnicity to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She became only the second woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, and of course, the first African-American woman. She was also the first African-American woman appointed to the city solicitor’s office of Philadelphia as well as the first woman (white or black) to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.
Finding it difficult to secure work in the academic field of economics, Alexander practiced law until her retirement in 1982. Working in her husband’s law practice, where they both gave time to civil rights law, she specialized in estate and family law.
In 1963, she served on President John F. Kennedy Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She was the niece of the first African-American painter to earn international acclaim, Henry Ossawa Tanner (one of my favorites), and Hallie Tanner Johnson, a physician who founded the Nurses’ School and Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute.
First Medical Degree
America’s first African-American female to earn an M.D. degree and become a physician was Rebecca Crumpler, doing so in 1864 from what is now the Boston University School of Medicine. In 1883, she became the first woman to publish a medical text book, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” written for nurses and mothers for the care of women and children. She developed the text from careful and detailed notes she made over the years in her medical practice.
Historians have questioned whether Crumpler ever truly earned her prestigious “first,” as it was long—but falsely—believed that Dr. Rebecca Cole was the first African-American woman to earn an M.D. We now know that Cole received her medical degree in 1867, making her the second African-American woman to do so. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the third in 1870, and she enjoyed significantly more professional and public prestige than either Crumpler or Cole.
Crumpler explained her motivation and inspiration to practice medicine to the readers of her book this way: “It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.”
She also gave relational advice in these pages to single girls and wives. To the girls she advised, “It is best for a young woman to accept a suitor who is respectable, vigorous, industrious, but a few years her senior, if not equal age.” To wives who desired long, happy marriages, she explained, the secret “is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two.” Essentially, live in later life with same the passion you had early on.
Her husband, Arthur, had been a fugitive slave. They were married for 30 years and were both tireless workers in Boston’s celebrated Twelfth Baptist Church.
First Law Degree
Charlotte E. Ray was the first black female lawyer in the United States, earning her law degree from the Howard University School of Law in 1872. She was also the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and the first woman of any race to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. She also practiced corporate law. Fredrick Douglass praised her in the pages of his newspaper, often reporting on her notable achievements and holding her up as an inspirational role model to black girls.
Ray was the daughter of one of the most important leaders of the Underground Railroad in New York. Her father was a congregational pastor to primarily white congregations, which was nearly unheard of. He was also widely respected as the owner and editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Colored American.
Ray’s sister, Henrietta Cordelia, was a noted and published poet. One of her poems was read at the unveiling ceremony of the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington D.C., a statue erected in honor of the “Great Emancipator,” President Lincoln.
To protect against institutional prejudice against women potentially being admitted to Howard’s Law School as well the bar, she registered for both as C. E. Ray. Her most famous case was not in her field of corporate law, but rather family law. Argued before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, she took the 1875 divorce case of an impoverished and illiterate woman, Martha Gadley, who had for years lived under the extreme abuse and cruelty of her husband.
It was nearly impossible that such a woman could secure a divorce at this time, even under such dire circumstances. Taking up the challenge out of sympathy, Ray succeeded in getting the case before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and secured Gadley’s legal freedom from her husband.
One of the first women to have an independent practice, Ray gave up her work in the legal profession due to prospective clients’ reservations about hiring a woman to handle their valuable corporate and real estate cases. She moved to Brooklyn to work as a teacher alongside her two sisters. Today, the National Bar Association bestows the Charlotte E. Ray Award to female lawyers of distinction.
Considering the obstacles they had to overcome, it was relatively quickly that African-American women, rising out of the evil chains of slavery, attained distinction as brilliant and notable scholars. Each made valuable and lasting contributions to her academic field as well as to her community. They stand as wonderful examples to us all, and especially to young African-American women, of what resilience, courage, and unwavering determination can accomplish.