Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870-1940

We all know something about how this nation’s public schools were integrated. From Brown vs. Board of Education to the searing images from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and Boston in the 1970s, we follow a trail of icons to tell the tale.

What about higher education? The anti-lynching campaigns of the early 20th century and later legal battles over housing and education were led by African Americans who often held advanced degrees. When and how were the nation’s research universities and professional schools integrated? When and how, specifically, was the University of Chicago integrated?

The answer lies in a tale of two Universities: the Old University of Chicago, founded just before the Civil War in 1857, and the new University, founded in 1892.

The first class at the new University included both women and African Americans or, rather, one African American woman: Miss Cora Bell Jackson of Chicago. The new University of Chicago has, in other words, been continuously integrated with respect to gender, race, and religion. This origin was the legacy of the Old University whose archives, alumni, faculty, and basic policies its successor adopted.

The second to last president of the Old University, Galusha Anderson, had been a devoted Unionist during the Civil War. In 1884 during the Old University’s foreclosure proceedings, he testified that the school had always admitted women and, from the date of the fifteenth amendment, African Americans. He was wrong on the first; close, on the latter.

The Old University of Chicago did not begin as an integrated institution. This changed when Judge Henry Booth, an idiosyncratic dean of the law school, admitted Mrs. Ada Kepley and Mr. Richard Dawson. They both graduated June 30, 1870, in a ceremony announced by the Chicago Tribune with the headline: "Woman, Negro graduate from University of Chicago Law School."

Judge Booth would later become a leading ethical humanist in Chicago and serve as an early President of the Chicago Ethical Society. Ethical humanism is a philosophical and religious doctrine committed to human equality. Now we can see also that Booth ranks among Chicago’s activist deans, a quiet maker of radical decisions that prepared the University of Chicago to be the foremost producer of African American PhDs in the early 20th century.

By 1943 the University of Chicago had awarded at least forty-five PhDs to African Americans, more than any other university in the world. The intellectual work of these alumni shaped fields as diverse as sociology and cell biology, constructed new fields like African American history and literature, provided leadership at institutions like Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, and Morehouse College, and drove policy changes on pressing issues like lynching.

The first African American student to take an advanced degree at the University of Chicago was Monroe Nathan Work who earned his MA in Sociology in 1903. While a student at Chicago, Work formed a debate team with another African American student, Richard R. Wright, Jr. (no relation to the novelist). About this Work later recalled:

". . . I learned the importance of facts. Wright and I had the facts and we would always get the decision because the other fellows might say the facts we offered weren’t so but they couldn’t offer any against them. You can’t argue with the facts. . . . It was then that I dedicated my life to the gathering of information, the compiling of exact knowledge concerning the Negro."

In this exhibit you will learn how the University of Chicago came to be integrated and who its first African American students were. You will see that a few independent-minded administrators and scholars consistently helped clear the path. Finally, you will find that, like Work, these alumni commonly took from the University of Chicago a strong conviction that rigorous scholarship serves human progress.

This exhibition is presented in association with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, a Chicago-based association of libraries, universities, and archival institutions. Research assistance for the exhibition was provided by John Dobard, Stefan von Hallberg, and Nancy Cotterman. In the Special Collections Research Center, Kerri Sancomb was responsible for management, design, and production of the exhibition with the assistance of Adrianne Gyorfi and Roman Sanders.

Danielle Allen
Exhibition Curator
UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

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