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First, But Not Last: The Wonderful Life of Dr. Dykes

By Shae O. Omonijo, Contributing Opinion Writer
Shae O. Omonijo is a first-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

One hundred years ago today on January 29, 1921 at Radcliffe College, Dr. Eva Beatrice Dykes successfully submitted her dissertation “Pope and His Influence in America from 1715-1850” to become the first Black woman to complete the requirements for a Ph.D. in the United States. The morning I first saw Dr. Dykes’ dissertation submission for her Doctor of Philosophy in English Philology degree, Harvard announced the closure of campus due to the rising Covid-19 pandemic. Minutes after receiving the email from University President Lawrence S. Bacow, I rushed to Schlesinger Library archives to spend as much time as I could with Dr. Dykes’ Radcliffe records.

For the next three days, I poured over her files that included everything from her Radcliffe application and an old yearbook to newspaper clippings and Radcliffe alumni surveys. The more I read, the more the intimate details revealed the long and prominent life of Dr. Eva B. Dykes.

After receiving her first bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1914, Dr. Dykes taught English at Walden University for a year. She then matriculated to Radcliffe college in 1915 and just two years later graduated with a second bachelor’s Magna Cum Laude. A few months later, she began her graduate work in English philology. After making history, she had a long career teaching at Dunbar High School, Howard University, and eventually Oakwood College where she would spend the rest of her career.

One day at Oakwood College, Dr. Dykes noticed that all the other professors had gotten a promotion. She approached the President of Oakwood College, Frank L. Peterson, at the time about why she didn’t receive one. She recalls him stating, “Well, you are a woman. That’s why you didn’t get it.” Dr. Dykes then responded, “President Peterson, if I go over here to the store and want to buy a loaf of bread, do I get a reduction because I am a woman? If I want to go downtown and buy clothes, do I get a reduction because I am a woman?”

The confidence and determination she displayed at every stage of her life spoke to my state of mind at the time. I was a bit lost and uncertain about which Ph.D. program offer I would accept, eager to visit as many universities as possible before the pandemic put my plans to a halt. In her files I saw someone who had very few options for where she could study as a Black woman in the early twentieth century. Yet here I was with an abundance of options. In many ways, I chose to study at Harvard to walk the path Dr. Dykes paved for me.

At Schlesinger Library, I heard Dr. Dykes’ voice for the first time through the Black Women’s Oral History Project and her words only further confirmed my decision. As I listened to her describe her life to Dr. Merze Tate, the first Black woman to graduate from Radcliffe with a Ph.D. in Government and International Relations, I realized the precious burden Black women have to preserve and honor the ones that came before us. As precious of a burden as it may be, if we don’t honor us, who else will?

Harvard professor Danielle Allen followed the legacy of Dr. Tate in many ways as she curated an exhibit called “Integrating the Life of the Mind: African-Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870-1940.” Through the exhibit, she preserved the legacy of another Black woman, Dr. Georgiana Simpson, who due to an earlier commencement date than Dr. Dykes became the first Black woman to receive her Ph.D. degree in the United States. Both women were joined by Dr. Sadie Alexander at the University of Pennsylvania, making it three Black women in total who earned their Ph.D.s in 1921. Without Dr. Allen’s dedication to publicly honoring the accomplishments of Black women, I would have never found her exhibit during my sophomore year in college and discovered my interest in history.

In 2017, I co-founded the Monumental Women Project with my friend, Asya Akca, to make Dr. Allen’s discovery even more public. We commissioned a bronze bust of Dr. Georgiana Simpson, the first public monument to honor a Black woman in the city of Chicago. Through this, I learned that when we relegate Black accomplishments to underground vaults, folders, and corners of our libraries and archives, we miss opportunities to imbue Black life into campus monuments, traditions, and buildings. Just imagine how a public monument to Dr. Dykes, especially here at Harvard, could inspire a new and larger generation of Black women, whose underrepresentation persists in both public monuments and academia.

So today, I honor and introduce to you Dr. Eva B. Dykes. She was an academic, a pioneer, an accomplished pianist, and a woman of faith who gave herself as much to her church as she did to her universities. She never married nor had children, but her legacy remains in every Black person that has the opportunities she made available to us.

Celebrating the centennial of the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the United States during my first year in my own Ph.D. program seems bittersweet, as I have been unable to experience Harvard’s campus as a graduate student. However, I am encouraged by Dr. Tate, Dr. Allen, and all the other Black women who came before me that we’ll find a way to honor Dr. Eva B. Dykes’ legacy on campus with the same rigor and devotion she dedicated to her career.

Shae O. Omonijo is a first-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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