Who were the first African Americans at the University of Chicago? An Old Question

We are not alone in asking the question: "Who were the first African Americans to attend the University of Chicago?"

A surprising number of letter writers contacted the office of the President between 1900 and 1920 to ask just that. Since the University did not organize student lists by race or ethnicity, this question was difficult to answer. The University Registrar did, however, note on a student's transcript if he or she were "Negro" (See Strategies for Coping with the Social Issue   section for examples).

Originally these notations were in the form of marginal notes on the transcripts, but some time between 1908 and 1915, the Registrar's Office added a line on the transcript form for entering a student's racial identity.

The earliest African American undergraduate alumni were Cora B. Jackson (1896), Spencer Cornelius Dickerson (1897), Richard Robert Wright, Jr. (1901), Monroe Nathan Work (1902), John Wesley Hubert (1903), James Garfield Lemon (1904), Cecilia Johnson (1906), Dudley Weldon Woodard (1906), George Franklin Thompson (1908), Garfield Allen Curry (1910), Earl Edward Finch (1910), and Georgiana Simpson (1911).

The first seven African American graduate alumni were Work (1903), Wright (1904), Charles H. Turner (1907), Woodard (1907), Carter G. Woodson (1908), Julian H. Lewis (1915) and Ernest Everett Just (1916).

By 1943, at least forty - five African Americans had earned PhD degrees from the University of Chicago, more than from any other university in the country.

L.J. Miller and Henry P. Chandler to David A. Robertson Secretary to William Rainey Harper
Manuscript letter,  February 12, 1906 and February 15, 1906

University of Chicago. Office of the President. Harper, Judson and Burton Administrations.

A researcher at Oberlin seeks information about African Americans at the University of Chicago and is told "One of the fundamental principles of the University of Chicago is democracy and therefore our courses have been open to negroes on the same terms as members of the white race from the beginning."

Trinity Mission and Culture Center
Pastor R. R. Wright, Jr.
Chicago: Café Printing Co., ca. 1904

University of Chicago. Office of the President. Harper, Judson and Burton Administration

This program comes from the church of alumnus Richard Wright Jr. (1901) and the related newspaper clipping indicates his public prominence in Chicago. Pastor Wright is advocating centralization of the African-American community around the Church.

Cap and Gown
Chicago: University of Chicago, 1902
Campus Publications Collection

The earliest yearbook record of an African American presence at the University of Chicago.