The bust of Georgiana Simpson sits in the Reynolds Club, aside a plaque detailing her story as the first African American to graduate from UChicago with a PhD. Simpson's accomplishments are worthy of their prominent display, which was made possible thanks to the efforts of two students who sought to honor her legacy and pave the way for additional monuments of women.
Asya Akca and Shae Omonijo met as first-years in Shorey House, where they bonded over their mutual interests in women's history and the history of female scholars at UChicago. Akca was discouraged by the lack of monuments honoring female leaders on campus, and was eager to continue work she started in her hometown of Louisville to highlight the accomplishments of inspiring women. At the same time, Omonijo, searching for the stories of other black students at the University, had delved into the history of Simpson in the University archives. The pair were inspired by her drive to succeed despite the tremendous odds against her and wanted to share her accomplishments. Together, they formed the Monumental Women Project to honor women who have left their mark on history through public art.
"It's so important to continue to tell the stories that haven't been told. That's been the overall theme that Shae and I have talked about since the beginning," Akca said. "Sharing these inspiring, motivational stories is how we will move forward."
Simpson's story is certainly inspirational. She enrolled at the University in 1907, working toward a bachelor's degree in Romance languages. She chose to live at Green Hall, the women's dormitory. Her presence sparked protests, but Head of Green Hall Sophonisba Breckinridge and Dean of Women Marion Talbot decided that she could continue to live in the dorms—a decision that was eventually overturned by University President Harry Judson. Simpson was forced to continue her studies while living off campus. Despite the hardships this caused, she earned her bachelor's degree in 1911 and returned to the University in 1917, eventually earning a doctorate in German Philology. She was one of the first African American women in the country to earn a PhD.
Akca and Omonijo noted they admired Simpson for her sheer determination—a trait they happen to have themselves. After devising a plan to create a monument in Simpson's honor, Akca and Omonijo worked for the next four years to make that plan a reality. They received their initial funding of $9,500 from Student Government's Uncommon Fund, and eventually raised close to $50,000 through a variety of grants and donations. The pair commissioned local artist Preston Jackson to create the bust, who, Omonijo said, "had a moving story as an artist of color himself, and was interested in Georgiana Simpson's story."
Akca and Omonijo unveiled the bust in Reynolds Club in November 2017, in front of an audience that included fellow students, staff, faculty, Hyde Park community members, and members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which Simpson belonged to as a student.
In remarks at the ceremony, Omonijo discussed the challenges of being a student of color.
"Too often black women's stories are neglected, untold, and hidden," she said. "Footnotes in other people's stories. . . . All of this changes today."
Akca encouraged guests to not only consider monuments that should be taken down, but also those that should be put up.
“Just as Georgiana Simpson’s academic career represented what is possible for women, so, too, may this monument exemplify what an inclusive view of our nation’s history might look like,” she said.
As fourth-years, Akca and Omonijo will graduate shortly after unveiling the bust. They plan to continue the Monumental Women Project in the next cities they land, and hope that students will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.
“The bust not only represents someone who overcame great challenges to achieve her goals, it also represents the incredible impact students can have on our campus,” added Director of Community Development and Operations–Reynolds Club Student Life Center Jen Kennedy, who advised Akca and Omonijo throughout the process of bringing the bust to campus.
For now, Akca and Omonijo will leave campus knowing that they added a permanent fixture to the Reynolds Club—a building that sees thousands of guests each year, and one in which, at one point in the University’s history, only men were welcome.
"When people pass by her bronze bust I want them to feel emboldened, inspired and worthy," Omonijo said. "I want Dr. Simpson to become a part of our campus life and culture, in ways she couldn't when she attended the University."
To read Akca and Omonijo’s full remarks from the unveiling ceremony, click here.