In 1921, Georgiana Rose Simpson became America’s first Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. She earned her doctorate as well as her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in German philology at the University of Chicago.
Now two U of C students are honoring her trailblazing achievement with the Georgiana Rose Organization social group supporting Black women and feminine-aligned students in academia.
GRO President Marla Anderson says that 100 years later, Simpson’s story resonates with her own and those of her peers.
“We know that she was barred from being able to be on campus because other students, her peers, didn’t want her on campus,” Anderson said. “We know that she faced other struggles. After she graduated from UChicago with her Ph.D, she was unable to find teaching positions because people didn’t think her achievements were enough. And so what I really admired about Dr. Simpson’s story was, one: her resilience; and two: her commitment to investing and reinvesting to her community. I think that’s really where GRO comes from, as Black women at a predominantly white institution, we’re going to face our own challenges, and our own times to be resilient.”
In 2017, a bust of Simpson was placed in the university’s Reynolds Club to honor her memory. GRO Vice President Dayo Adeoye notes that the placement of the bust in the space once only open to white men is significant.
“Her bust stands parallel to the exact president who refused to let her live on the Chicago campus,” Adeoye said. “Her bust is in a central location on campus that everyone will get a chance to see if they are student here. And so I think for us it was like, it’s like a welcome, almost, to the Black students.”
Adeoye believes that the centering of Black women and their experiences in GRO will help equip its members in their post-academic lives.
“The gap that we are really trying to fill is creating that space of care, that space of comfort to know that we are validated as women in our experience and know that those experiences are intersectional and such,” she said. “Then when we go into these spaces and we go into the world, we are equipped with the confidence to speak, to really to be ourselves, because we always know that on campus specifically there is that space and that’s what GRO is.”
Anderson says the events the young organization plans are intended to create bonds between their members and the community.
“Chicago is so filled with so many great Black women-owned businesses,” she said. “And so we’ve been able to go to Semicolon, which is a bookstore in Chicago, the only Black women-owned bookstore and gallery. We’ve been able to go to Kilwins. it’s a Black-owned chocolate shop. And we also went to the Bisa Butler exhibit at the Art Institute. If there are Black women businesses or Black businesses in Chicago that would like to see us, that would like to invite us over so we can all have a good time and share this community together, that would be amazing.”