Editor’s note: Today marks the start of Black History Month in the United States. The following article celebrates three pioneering Black academics—one of whom is also remembered for her lifelong dedication and service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Three Black women earned doctoral degrees at all-white Ivy League institutions a century ago. The trio of Sadie Mossell, Georgiana Simpson, and Eva Dykes faced massive obstacles to do the impossible: become the first Black women to earn PhDs.
Sadie Tanner Mossell entered the University of Pennsylvania at 17 years old in 1915. She had wanted to go to the all-Black Howard University in Washington, D.C., near Dunbar High School where she had graduated. But her mother insisted that she stay close to their home in Philadelphia and attend Penn.
“I remember, I screamed, I cried, I jumped up and down on the bed, I tried to break the spring,” Mossell recalled. “She [mother] let me perform, and told me that she’d be very foolish to be sending me back to Washington when there was a great University here.”
Sadie Mossell’s family had a distinguished legacy at the University of Pennsylvania. Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell Jr., was the first Black student to earn a law degree from the school, and her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell, was the first to receive a medical degree.
But despite her pedigree, the 5’2” Black teenager majoring in economics was not embraced at Penn, even by other women.
“Not one woman spoke to me in class or when I passed one or more than one woman on the walks to College Hall or the Library,” Sadie Mossell said. “Can you imagine looking for classrooms and asking persons the way, only to find the same unresponsive person you asked for directions seated in the classroom in which you entered late because you could not find your way?”
Black people were prohibited from eating in cafeterias on campus, and restaurants nearby also refused them. Mossell appealed to Penn’s president for Black students to be allowed to get warm meals in the cafeteria. He said he could not help her.
At the university library, Mossell was often denied service. The librarian ignored her requests for assistance, and no matter what book Mossell asked for, she was told it was checked out.
In the classroom, Mossell was lectured to by white male professors and sat next to white male students. On one occasion, a professor ordered Mossell to leave his class, stating that he did not teach women.
Instead of discouraging her, though, this resistance only seemed to strengthen Sadie Mossell’s resolve. “Such circumstances made a student either a dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities.”
Mossell only saw one way to a degree: “I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down.”
And knock it down she did. Mossell completed her BS with honors in three years, and the next year earned an MA.
Sadie Mossell was awarded a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania on June 15, 1921.
Georgianna Simpson was likely born in Washington D.C. right as the Civil War ended—her exact birthdate is disputed. Her parents had been enslaved in Virginia and could not read or write.
Yet Simpson decided to pursue a career in teaching, one of the few professional fields open to Black women in the late-nineteenth century. Captivated by German culture, in 1896 she went to Germany to study the German language.
By 1900, Simpson was living with Helen Pitts Douglass, the widow of Frederick Douglass. That year, Simpson attended summer school at Harvard University. She would be in school for the next 21 years.
Simpson enrolled at the University of Chicago with a major in German Philology in 1906. Her presence at the Ivy League institution created a scandal when five white female students left the dorm in protest of a Black person staying there. The school president demanded that Simpson move off campus.
Simpson had to comply. Her expulsion from campus would be the first of a nasty pattern of racism toward her at the school, and her grades would suffer as a result.
Simpson also had to make a living and so divided her time taking classes at the University of Chicago with teaching at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. She was in France in 1914 when World War I broke out, and because she was studying German at the time, she was later suspected of being a German spy.
But Simpson kept focused on schoolwork. In 1911, she earned her bachelor’s, followed by a master’s in 1920.
On June 14, 1921, Georgiana Simpson received her PhD in German philology, cum laude, from the University of Chicago. She was 56 years old.
Eva Beatrice Dykes was accepted into Radcliffe College in 1915. Known as the “woman’s Harvard,” Radcliffe was adjacent to the illustrious Harvard, which was a university for, by, and of privileged white men. Although women were prohibited from attending Harvard, its male professors delivered the same lectures to women at Radcliffe.
Dykes had earned a bachelor’s in English, summa cum laude, at Howard University, but because it was a Black school, Radcliffe did not acknowledge the credits. Dykes had to do a second undergraduate degree at Radcliffe.
Like Simpson, Dykes could not stay on Radcliffe’s campus due to the hue of her skin. She found a room in the nearby Cambridge.
Undaunted at these racial slights, Dykes plunged into her studies. In two years, she earned her second bachelor’s, graduating magna cum laude, the top 13% in a class of 105 graduates.
Radcliffe awarded Dykes five scholarships to pursue a doctorate.
A higher academic status did not protect Dykes from the mundanity of racism. “When I was working on my doctorate at Radcliffe, my Professor at Howard University wrote to the historical society of one of the Carolinas to see whether I could visit to do research,” she recalled. “He received an answer stating that they did not admit colored students for any type of research.”
Dykes frequented the Library of Congress for her research but was not able to dine at the cafeteria there because she was Black. She brought a bag lunch and ate at one of the capital’s nearby parks.
Dykes managed to complete and successfully defend a 644-page dissertation on the English poet Alexander Pope in November 1920. She didn’t know it at the time, but by doing so, she became part of the first of the trio to complete the requirements for a PhD.
Eva B. Dykes received her PhD in English Philology from Radcliffe College on June 22, 1921.
After earning doctorates, the three ceiling-breakers pursued different paths.
Sadie Tanner Mossell married Raymond Pace Alexander, a prominent Philadelphia attorney, and she also became a lawyer. The couple dedicated their legal efforts to ending racial discrimination. Sadie was appointed to President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights and President John F. Kennedy’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She died in Philadelphia in 1989.
Georgiana Simpson was a professor of German at Howard University from 1931 to 1939. She died tragically in her Washington, D.C., home from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1944.
Eva B. Dykes taught at Dunbar High School and Howard University before moving to Huntsville, Alabama, to teach at Oakwood College, where she lived until her death in 1986.
Each of these intersectional figures has been honored at their respective institutions.
Sadie Mossell Alexander is memorialized by the Penn Alexander School, established in 2001 by a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
In 2017, a bronze bust of Georgiana Simpson, along with a plaque sharing her story, was placed in the Reynolds Club at the University of Chicago.
And in 1973, Oakwood College named its library after Eva B. Dykes.
For more on Eva B. Dykes, see “Eva Beatrice Dykes: First African American Woman to Complete PhD Requirements.”
To read more about the stories of all three women, see Breaking Barriers: The First Ladies of Education, by Dewitt S. Williams.
Benjamin Baker teaches at the University of Maryland and is the creator of blacksdahistory.org.
DeWitt S. Williams is a retired administrator and author of She Fulfilled the Impossible Dream, a biography of Eva B. Dykes.
Photos courtesy of DeWitt S. Williams.
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