Pitt's First Black Female Graduate Was A Talented Educator And Civic Leader

Jan 11, 2019

In the early 1900s, Jean Hamilton became the first African-American woman to receive her bachelor's and doctorate degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. She was a leader in a field with few women, and is one of a handful of black women under consideration to replace the controversial Stephen Foster statue that once stood in Oakland.

Jean Hamilton grew up on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 1887 when it was still Allegheny City. She was one of six children and according to Pittsburgh writer C. Denise Johnson, was raised in a home that valued rigorous learning. Johnson profiled the Pitt alumna for the magazine Blue, Gold, and Black 2010 and said Hamilton’s mother, Sadie Black Hamilton, was a juvenile court officer who also ran a private school for African-American children. Sadie was a member of the Frances E. W. Harper League, an African-American service organization with a philanthropic mission.

Jean Hamilton graduated from Allegheny High School in 1904, where Johnson said she wouldn’t have seen a lot of people of color in the classroom.

“Most of her teachers did not look like her because black teachers were not allowed to teach in Pittsburgh Public Schools,” Johnson said. Black educators were not permitted in the district until after World War II.

But a lack of representation in academics didn’t stop Hamilton from enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh in 1906.

“She was coming into her own right after the throes of Reconstruction,” Johnson said, referring to the period of time after the Civil War when former slaves were given citizenship and the ex-Confederate states were directed to comply. But at the same time, Johnson added, Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Americans and further deepened segregation were also well underway.

Jean Hamilton Walls broke barriers at many of the institutions where she taught. In 1944, she became the first female professor with a doctorate degree to teach at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio.
Credit University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections

By 1906, William Hunter Damon had recently become the first African American to graduate from Pitt, earning his degree in civil engineering with honors. Two more black men would graduate from the medical school Hamilton’s freshman year. But Hamilton was the only woman.

“She was part of a Renaissance period of black achievements at the University of Pittsburgh,” Johnson said.

She majored in physics and mathematics long before there was a push to get young women interested in the fields, according to former Pitt vice chancellor for public affairs Robert Hill.

“She was a STEM person ... long before the term STEM was invented,” Hill said. “Right there [that] placed her as a pioneer.”

When Hamilton graduated in 1910, she continued her education at Howard University in Washington D.C., earning her master’s in education. Hill said she went on to teach at YWCAs and high schools throughout the South.

“She taught mathematics, she also taught English, she taught psychology,” Hill said. “So apparently she was good at a lot of different fields.”

She returned to Pittsburgh in 1925 to run the Pittsburgh YWCA, where she was praised for her leadership. Hill said she encouraged young people to follow her example and “do their best” to overcome barriers.

“Imagine a woman who was no-nonsense and who took pride in her own accomplishments,” Hill said.

In 1930 she married Carnegie Mellon University grad Raymond Walls, and Hamilton enrolled at Pitt and accomplished another first: she became the first black woman to receive her Ph.D. from the college in 1938. Hill said her dissertation, “A Study of the Negro Graduates of the University of Pittsburgh in the Decade 1926-1935,” examined the lives of black graduates.

“I'm just imagining her pre computer days collecting all of these data on these 10 years of kids all together,” Hill said. “That was really a substantial accomplishment.”

Hamilton and her husband traveled around the country teaching at a number of universities including Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio that Hamilton’s mother had attended. That’s where Pittsburgher Nancy Bolden encountered her. Bolden was a freshman and said that while she didn’t have Hamilton as an instructor, Hamilton was a significant presence in the school.

“She was a person you would certainly respect,” Bolden said.

Hamilton died in her Los Angeles home in 1978. At Pitt, a scholarship for undergraduate research has been named in her honor.

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