Features & Articles

Jean Hamilton Walls: The First African American Woman to Earn a PhD at Pitt

The following article, written by C. Denise Johnson, was originally published in Blue Gold and Black, 2010

“Jean Hamilton Walls Becomes the First African American Woman to Earn a PhD at the University
of Pittsburg (sic)”

At first glance, the headline seems to say it all. The NAACP considered the 51-year-old Allegheny City native’s accomplishment to be so notable that it included her distinction in the August 1938 edition of its official magazine, The Crisis. She was, after all, one of only nine Blacks to receive a PhD that year—one of only nine in the nation. What the headline fails to tell you is that Jean Hamilton Walls (A&S 1910) also was the first Black woman to attend and earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Furthermore, the headline cannot begin to describe the enduring strength of the woman who paved a path for thousands of Black women at Pitt over the course of the last century.

Born on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 1887, Jean Hamilton was one of six children born to Sadie Black Hamilton and the only one of the Hamilton siblings to live to see the age of 41. Hamilton’s mother was a pillar in Pittsburgh’s emerging Black community, creating her own private school for Black children, working as a juvenile court officer, and serving as an active voice in the local suffrage movement.

There is little doubt that having such a strong female presence in her youth had a profound effect on the strength Hamilton would grow up to possess. However, to comprehend fully the depth of her accomplishments, one must consider the social climate surrounding her formative years as an African American in Pittsburgh.

By the time Jean Hamilton was born, the gains of Reconstruction were under heavy assault, and the restrictions of segregation laws throughout the nation
were well on their way to becoming an American institution. To say that educational opportunities for Blacks were limited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be an extreme understatement; this was especially true in the public school systems.

Pittsburgh’s public schools had abandoned de jure segregation in 1881; however, Black teachers were not permitted to teach in Pittsburgh public schools until well after the end of the second World War. Also, very few local schools
allowed Black and White children to be taught in the same buildings. Few Black students were able to complete their education and, of them, fewer still continued on to pursue
a college degree.

It was within this harsh environment that Hamilton ultimately graduated from Allegheny High School in 1904. Following her mother’s example, she furthered her education, becoming the first African American woman to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1906.

Hamilton was part of a renaissance period of Black achievements at Pitt. This period began in 1893, when William Hunter Dammond became the first African American to graduate from the University, earning a degree in civil engineering with honors. At the turn of the 20th century, Hamilton was amongst a select number of African Americans paving the way for a legacy of Black achievements at Pitt. In 1906, the very year Hamilton enrolled, Charles Henry Carroll and James Charles Gill Fowler became the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Also, in 1909, Robert L. Vann became the first African American to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. The following year, he became the publisher of The Pittsburgh Courier, building it into the most prominent African American newspaper in the country.

The qualities of strength and determination that served her forebears well in navigating the University of Pittsburgh’s genteel hostility—segregated tolerance—were vital as Hamilton went on
to earn a BS in mathematics and physics in 1910.

Hamilton continued her studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she earned an MA in education in 1912; her thesis was titled “Teacher Training in Negro Normal Schools.” She taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Md., from 1914 to 1918.

Hamilton then worked at various YWCAs along the East Coast before returning to Pittsburgh in 1925, when she became the executive secretary of the Pittsburgh YWCA. The Pittsburgh Courier made note of Hamilton’s reputation for excellence at the YWCA in its March 18, 1925, edition:

Popularity and efficiency are rare attributes. To be an executive secretary of a YWCA branch and maintain these attributes is most rare. Miss Jean Hamilton, the executive secretary of the Centre Avenue branch, has been acclaimed the “popular and efficient Jean.” You see, she is “our Jean,” a Pittsburgher. … She taught school and officiated in other cities as “Y” secretary before Pittsburgh could command her services. Her inspiration and blooming personality has given our branch that indescribable something that compels interest and cooperation.

Additionally, Hamilton was one of the eight founders of Alpha Alpha Omega, Pittsburgh’s graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., in 1927.

Later, in 1928, Hamilton taught English at what is now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C., during which time she met Raymond A. Walls, a Chicago Music College and Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) alumnus 20 years her junior. The two married in 1930, and Jean Hamilton became Jean Hamilton Walls. Hamilton Walls eventually left Greensboro and taught mathematics at the Fort Valley Junior College in Georgia from 1932 to 1935.

In 1935, she returned to Pitt to pursue her PhD degree. Her doctoral thesis was “A Study of the Negro Graduates of the University of Pittsburgh in the Decade 1926–1936.”

Upon the submission and approval of her thesis, Hamilton Walls was conferred a doctorate in personnel administration in 1938, becoming the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Pitt’s history.

After completing her studies, Hamilton Walls then relocated to Scotlandville, La., that same year to join the faculty of what is now Southern University and A&M College, where she taught English and mathematics; she also was the dean of women.

In 1944, Hamilton Walls accepted a position at her mother’s alma mater, Wilberforce University, the oldest private African American university in the United States. According to Negro College Quarterly, Hamilton Walls was the first female PhD recipient on Wilberforce’s faculty; she became a professor of mathematics.

Pittsburgher Nancy Bolden, who attended Wilberforce during Hamilton Walls’ tenure, remembers her as a woman of great dignity who never lost sight of her position in the greater community and who appeared to carry that confidence as naturally as the air she breathed.

“She was a very petite, prim, and proper woman who made time to share her life’s experiences with the students,” Bolden recalls.

Hamilton Walls spent 1947 at what is now Delaware State University. She returned to Ohio in 1948, this time to teach at Central State University, located adjacent to Wilberforce University, where Hamilton Walls taught psychology until she retired in 1955 following a distinguished educational career spanning more than four decades.

Hamilton Walls was affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, American Teacher Association, American Academy of Political and Social Science, and American Association of University Women.

The Wallses relocated to California, where their lives presumably centered on Raymond Walls’ career aspirations as a musician. The two periodically returned to Pittsburgh for social events.

Jean Hamilton Walls passed away in Los Angeles, Calif., on December 9, 1979. She was survived by her husband, Raymond and was buried at sea.

Because of her pioneering and determined pursuit of a college education, scholarships and research awards have been established in her honor, including the Jean Hamilton Walls Undergraduate Research Award through the Academic Resource Center of Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences.