By the 1920s a mere 10,000 black Americans were college educated – or about 0.1 percent of the population.
Of that number, in 1921 three black women became the first to receive PhDs: Georgiana Simpson in German philology from the University of Chicago; Sadie Mossell Alexander in economics from the University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Dykes in English philosophy from Radcliffe College. The order is based on their believed commencement schedules that year.
Simpson worked through college, attending Harvard and Clark University before enrolling full time at the University of Chicago at the age of 41. Although Simpson was not Chicago’s first black student, she sparked a protest when she decided to live on campus. At first Simpson was allowed to stay, and five other women moved out; however, Chicago’s president later demanded Simpson move off campus, establishing a whites-only living facility.
Alexander went on to achieve many other firsts – such as being the first American black woman to obtain a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania. She was also the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the first black American woman to be named Assistant City Solicitor for the city of Philadelphia.
After earning her doctorate, Dykes accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where she remained until 1944. She published several works that reflected her passion for black history and literatre, including The Negro in English Romantic Thought.