The bronze bust of Georgiana Simpson, the first African American woman to receive a PhD from UChicago, was unveiled in Reynolds Club on November 28, 2017, in front of students, faculty, staff, Hyde Park community members, and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority to which Simpson belonged. Asya Akca and Shae Omonijo, the UChicago students who raised the funds to commission the bust, made remarks prior to the unveiling.
For more on the Monumental Women Project, click here.
Asya Akca's Remarks
First and foremost, I would like to thank all of you for joining us for this monumental occasion to honor an incredible person whom Shae and I have come to respect and admire so much.
Over the course of the past few years, we have worked to find the most appropriate way to bring to life Dr. Georgiana Simpson’s accomplishments on campus. Her life embodies traits that we, as members of the University of Chicago community, value. Perseverance. Intellectual curiosity. A commitment to equality. It is this collection of qualities that makes Dr. Simpson a role model for all.
In the early days of the project, we asked: What kind of piece are we envisioning? Where could we place a monument? Indoors? Outdoors? Which location would have the most historic value? Who would be the artist of this piece? And.. How do we, two individuals who know nothing about the art world, attempt to pursue this kind of a project.
We quickly learned that no task is possible without a strong team. Ideas are only promising when you have others to support them and bring their opinions to the table. Our team, our trio, will always hold a significant place in my heart. Jen, again, we cannot thank you enough. You took us under your wing and assisted us in every way we could’ve imagined, as well as all of the ways that had never imagined.
Shae, I am infinitely appreciative of the contributions you have made to our project. It’s hard to imagine now that we had met in orientation week in I-House, our first year at UChicago. In a lot of ways, our entire college experience has been defined by this project—our common effort. We have learned and grown so much over those years, we have worked towards achieving a unique goal, and I am so proud of that.
Although it took several challenging years of work to make this all possible… it was always energizing for us to have Dr. Simpson constantly on our minds, as our role model. A scholar of German Philology, she embodied true academic passion and drive. In 1921, after years of being confronted with one obstacle after another, she became one of the first African American women in the entire country to receive her PhD—this accomplishment is tremendous. And it is tremendously inspiring.
My hope is that sharing her story through this monument will inspire and empower others, from current UChicago students, to future ones—to the thousands of families who tour our school every year. A solid bronze sculpture. A Classical way of honoring a more contemporary kind of hero.
When I contemplate the positive impact that Dr. Simpson’s monument will have on future generations, I think back to my own childhood.
Growing up as an immigrant in Kentucky, I couldn’t help but notice local landmarks. To me, they exemplified what it meant to be an American. The memorials we had in Kentucky honored Abraham Lincoln, Muhammed Ali, and ...Colonel Sanders.
I specifically remember wondering: how had women and girls like myself contributed? Where did we fit into the American fabric? I recall pondering this idea as I trekked through the halls of the Kentucky State Capitol, puzzled by what I saw.
In the state capitol rotunda, there are five towering figures honoring influential Kentucky men, in bronze and marble, atop literal pedestals. And if you turn a corner, walk into a back corridor, you’ll see a glass case storing an assortment of porcelain dolls.
This is how Kentucky chooses to honor its first ladies. I was 12 years old and I was appalled.
Monuments not only ask for respect, but for emulation. The capitol was calling upon the young women of Kentucky to emulate fragile 18-inch figurines, trapped in a glass case.
I wanted to fix it. A few years later, I worked on the concept of Monumental Women in Louisville, trying to spread the word locally.
Then, I arrived at UChicago, and it was clear this campus was not immune to the greater societal issue of underrepresenting women of our history. I was 18 years old and once more, I wanted to fix it.
At that point in time, Shae and I never would’ve imagined that we would be in this room tonight, celebrating this occasion, with so many of you in the audience. (PAUSE) We will not forget this moment for the rest of our lives.
In the past few months, communities across the country have been pondering similar questions to those of my childhood. I urge everyone to think not only about monuments that should be removed across our nation—but also about those that still need to be put up. Fuller histories that still need to be told.
And so, my hope is that the spirit of this monument will not stop at the doors of the Reynolds Club. Rather, just as Dr. Simpson has served as a role model for me, Shae, and countless others, I hope that our action here at UChicago can be as pioneering as her underlying work.
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.
We haven’t fixed it. We haven’t even begun to fix the problem. But, I’m inspired and awed by the attention this project has received. I think about 12 year old me at the Kentucky capitol, staring at those dolls, and I am proud knowing that young women at UChicago won’t relate, because they’ll be able to gaze/look into the eyes of Dr. Simpson, and they’ll know anything is possible.
History matters. Representation matters. Equality matters. And pioneering women of color matter. May Dr. Georgiana Simpson’s monument end the silence of underrepresentation and inspire a new wave of recognition. For monumental women and their monumental victories. Thank you.
Shae Omonijo's Remarks
When I first came to the University of Chicago, I must admit I had my reservations. I remember fondly looking for the black people in the dining hall, in my classes, and in positions of leadership. I soon discovered that it wasn’t that I couldn’t find them, but that there were simply not that many of us to begin with.
So I had to accept early on that this University would be a place where I would have to be conscious of the spaces I inhabit. Opportunities and resources wouldn’t just be given to me--I had to seek them out and at times create them.
The reality is how I felt when I first came to campus, is an all too familiar feeling to many students of color who attend universities across the nation. So I channeled the initial feeling of being uncomfortable into curiosity. As a first year in the University of Chicago, I went rummaging through the University archives in search of understanding. I found the archive entitled “Integrating the Life of the Mind: African-Americans at the University of Chicago” It was in this archive that I read of a woman named Georgiana Simpson who came to the University in 1907 to begin her undergraduate degree. Upon her arrival at Green residence Hall, she was met with protest from white female students who didn’t want her living in residence simply because she was black. The Dean of Women Marion Talbot and Sophonisba Breckinridge made the decision that Georgiana Simpson could remain on campus. However, University President Harry Pratt Judson overturned this decision and made Simpson find residence off campus.
Nevertheless, she persisted!
She returned to the University of Chicago to begin her graduate work in 1917. Georgiana Simpson became DOCTOR Georgiana Simpson in 1921 making her one of the first African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in the United States.
Too often black women’s stories are neglected, untold, and hidden. We are the Footnotes in other people’s stories. We honor University President Harry Pratt Judson, Sophinsba Breckinridge, and Marion Talbot with the naming of college dorms and public art pieces, but Dr. Simpson’s name has yet to receive the same honor.
All of this changes today! Dr. Simpson will be permanently fixated in Reynolds Club, a space that was once reserved for white men only and now is a center for student life. Her bronze bust has her looking onward with her head facing away from the bronze relief of President Judson. She has a slight, yet triumphant grin, her shoulders broadened, she stands there in all her glory in her graduation gown.
When people pass by her bronze bust I want them to feel emboldened, inspired and worthy. I want Dr. Simpson to become a part of our campus life and culture, in ways she couldn't when she attended the University. So I have a suggestion that I would like to run by everyone tonight. We have a myth here at the University of Chicago, -- if you step on the seal here in Reynolds Club a magical curse will befall you and you won't graduate in four years. What if we can undo that curse with a new tradition--students can touch Dr. Georgiana’s Simpson bronze tassel as a form of reassurance that they will graduate, and not only will they survive, but they will thrive!
While myths and curses come and go, there are still many obstacles that black women face on college campuses today. My heart breaks for the stories of black women like Jazzy Rowe who was tormented by her roommate at the University of Hartford; women like Taylor Dumpson from American University who faced racist torments for being elected the first black female student government president. These stories are a reminder that the aspiration of diversity and inclusion is just that--an aspiration. We must acknowledge and deal with our past, as painful as it may be so that we can create a more equitable future.
So I say to these women--this bronze bust of Dr. Georgiana Simpson is for you.
For the students of color across the nation who ever questioned their place at the greatest institutions in the world. This bronze bust is for you.
For the professors who mentor students of color and provide the resources and opportunities, we need to succeed. The professors who say to me I no longer have to work twice as hard just to have half of what my counterparts have --This bronze bust is for you.
For the staff members who have a truly open door policy. Who provide encouragement and comfort at the toughest of times during our college careers--This bronze bust is for you.
For my mother, who is here tonight, who always taught me that if there is no solution, you must become it. If there’s no path, you must pave it. If there are no opportunities, you must create them. This bronze bust is for you.
As Viola Davis stated during her Emmy speech, “the only thing the separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.” If not for Dr. Simpson, I and so many students of color like me would not have the opportunities that we have today. So I say before everyone here tonight--May the permanent fixture of her legacy remain an inspiration to the next generation of women for centuries to come.