“Monuments demonstrate what society values . . . but they are particularly important for changing institutions and for changing norms,” Professor Melissa Gilliam, the Vice Provost for Academic Leadership, Advancement, and Diversity at UChicago, said at the Unveiling Ceremony for the bronze bust of Dr. Georgiana Simpson on November 28.
“A monument of an African-American scholar of German philology de-biases our minds, it challenges stereotypes, it forces us to rethink and reconsider our common narratives about scholarship and about the history of the University of Chicago,” she continued.
Simpson was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago, and one of the first in the nation to do so. Her bust was born out of the Monumental Women’s Project, founded by UChicago students Asya Akca (BA ‘18, MA ‘18) and Shae Omonijo (BA ‘18) to increase public monuments that honor women. The ceremony brought together faculty members, contributors of the project, and community members to celebrate the achievements of Simpson and the efforts of Akca and Omonijo.
“We commonly say the University of Chicago awarded one of the country’s first PhDs to an African-American woman,” Gilliam continued in her speech, “However, that story is always told from the perspective of the university; we’ve failed to tell the story from Dr. Simpson’s perspective – until now.”
“Thank you, Asya and Shae, for reminding us that it is her achievement and her story.”
Akca and Omonijo came to display Simpson’s story through personal attempts to find representation and stories that they could relate to. Omonijo said in her speech during the ceremony that “too often black women’s stories are neglected, untold, and hidden. We are the footnotes in other people’s stories.” When Omonijo first arrived at UChicago, she found that there were not many black students around her. She “channeled the initial feeling of being uncomfortable into curiosity,” and rummaged through University archives to eventually read about the story of Georgiana Simpson.
Simpson enrolled at UChicago in 1907 and immediately encountered white students who didn’t want an African-American living in the same dorm as them. The white students protested and President Harry Pratt Judson ultimately forced Simpson to leave campus. Following Judson’s decision, Simpson took summer courses to avoid further conflicts with the predominately white student body, and earned an AB in Germanic Languages and Literature in 1911. She returned to UChicago to earn an AM in Germanic philology, and finally, a PhD from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature in 1921.
Omonijo latched onto Simpson’s story and joined forces with Akca, who had long considered the importance of public monuments. In her speech during the ceremony, Akca related a striking memory of her visit to the Kentucky State Capitol when she was twelve years old. She saw influential Kentucky men being honored as life-size figurines “atop literal pedestals” in the central rotunda, whereas around the corner, first ladies were honored as “eighteen-inch figurines trapped in a glass case.” Akca then began working on increasing monuments of women in Louisville, and when she arrived at UChicago, founded the Monumental Women’s Project. She partnered with Omonijo and they began creating a monument of Simpson.
Jen Kennedy, Director of Community Development and Operations at the Reynolds Club, spoke at the ceremony about her experiences working closely with the two students to institute the monument.
“Close to three years, over two thousand emails—I know, I’ve counted—and $10,000 later,” said Kennedy, “we have these two to thank.”
In 2015, Akca and Omonijo applied to the Student Government Uncommon Fund and in 2016 they were awarded $9,500, the most any student group had ever been awarded. In total, the students raised over $50,000 to complete the project. Kennedy highlighted the strengths of each student: “when others might have given up or taken a few days break to regroup and rest, Shae doubled down on her dedication to the project,” while “Asya’s infectious enthusiasm for the project and inclusive nature meant that she continuously amassed confidants and supporters for the project.”
The care the two took to create the bust showed in their interaction with the bust’s sculptor, Preston Jackson. In his speech at the ceremony, Jackson said that when they visited him to discuss the bust, they “almost designed it right there in the room.”
The ceremony was a deeply personal moment for Akca and Omonijo, to celebrate their efforts with the people closest to them. Acka, in an interview with The Gate after the ceremony, expressed the importance of having her mother there: “Georgiana Simpson had become such a role model at UChicago, but our moms have been huge role models for us individually in our lives.”
Omonijo’s mom came to the ceremony as a last-minute surprise, Omonijo told The Gate. Omonijo was incredibly moved, especially when her mom said to her after the ceremony, “At that night, everyone wanted to be your mom, and I just wanted to tell you that I'm so happy that I'm actually your mom.”
The ceremony also celebrated the impact that the monument will have on UChicago. Daniel Diermeier, the provost of UChicago, noted in his speech during the ceremony that “diversity and inclusion are core values of the University of Chicago.” Professor Gilliam agreed to this, as “the University Chicago has never blocked admission based on race, has never held quotas.” However, Gilliam also noted that “the story of Dr. Simpson tells us that opening the doors is not enough.” Even though Simpson acquired an “insider” status when she was admitted, she was an “outsider” on campus.
The monument paves the way for increasing diverse representation on campus. Omonijo emphasized in her speech that “Dr. Simpson will be permanently fixated in Reynolds Club, a space that was once reserved for white men only . . . Her bronze bust has her looking onward with her head facing away from the bronze relief of President Judson [the president who forced her off campus].”
Kennedy in her speech also stated that Omonijo and Acka have “changed the face of the campus. They have not only honored the memory of an amazing woman, but also helped us create an environment where members of the community can clearly see themselves.”
The ceremony finally celebrated the influence of the monument beyond UChicago. Carol Mossley Braun, the first female African American US Senator and the first female Senator from Illinois, told The Gate after the ceremony that Omonijo and Acka “were inspired by Dr. Simpson, and I was inspired by them.”
Loann J Honesty King, the International Program Chairman of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA), the sorority that Simpson was a part of, also spoke at the ceremony. She asked all AKA women to stand up, and gradually, all throughout the auditorium, women of all ages stood up, showing how large and how diverse a group of people beyond UChicago were affected by Simpson’s monument.
At the end of the ceremony, Omonijo and Acka walked out of Mandel Hall into the hallway that the bust now stands in. The audience continued to watch them through a projected live video, as the two walked up to a large black curtain and each grabbed a cord in one hand. At the same time, they pulled the cords down and immediately, the black curtain dropped to reveal the shining bronze bust of Dr. Georgiana Simpson. Applause erupted inside the auditorium.
All the while, amidst the applause, Akca’s last words at the end of her speech continued to resonate.
“My hope is that the spirit of this monument will not stop at the doors of the Reynolds Club,” Acka said. “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.”
“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.”
The image featured in this article is courtesy of the Monumental Women Project and photographer Beth Rooney.
Elaine Chen is a second-year Political Science and Economics major. She's also a staff writer for South Side Weekly, a weekly newspaper that covers South Side Chicago civic and cultural news. On campus, she's involved with the dance group UChicago Maya.