Education During Slavery
Who were the first African-American women to earn doctoral degrees?
Eva Beatrice Dykes (1893–1986), Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898–1989), and Georgianna R. Simpson (1866–1944) were the first three black American women to earn doctorates. All three received their degrees in 1921.
Dykes was the first to complete requirements for a Ph.D. She was born in Washington, D.C., where her family had close ties to that city’s Howard University. Four of her relatives, including her father, were Howard graduates. One of her sisters taught at Howard after graduating from the institution. Dykes herself graduated from Howard summa cum laude in 1914. She taught at the now-closed Walden University (Nashville, Tennessee) for a year, and then enrolled at Radcliffe College, where she was accepted as an unclassified student. She earned three degrees from Radcliffe: A.B. in English, magna cum laude, honors in English, and election to Phi Beta Kappa (1917); A.M. (1918); Ph.D. (1921). Before joining Howard’s faculty in 1929, Dykes taught at what became Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington; she retained her Howard position until 1944. She published several works while there. When she left Howard, she became the first woman to join the faculty at Oakwood College, a Seventh Day Adventist junior college (at that time) in Huntsville, Alabama. Dykes, who was known for her musical ability and her commitment to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in addition to her commitment to education, remained the only faculty woman for ten years. The rest of her career was spent at Oakwood. She first retired in 1968, returned in 1970 to teach a full load for three years, and taught a reduced load from 1973 until she retired permanently in 1975. During her stay at Oakwood, Dykes chaired the committee whose work led to Oakwood’s accreditation in 1958 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; in addition, she directed several Oakwood music groups. She was also instrumental in helping to establish a separate black conference of the Adventist Church.
Of the three black women who obtained doctorates in 1921, Dykes completed her requirements first. However, the commencement exercises of Sadie Alexander and Georgianna Simpson were both held before Dykes. Alexander received her degree in economics (the first black American to earn a degree in the field) from the University of Pennsylvania and Simpson earned her degree in German at the University of Chicago. Simpson attended commencement exercises on June 14, making her the first black American woman to earn a doctorate.