Date November 29, 2022
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Brown renames Graduate School diversity fellowships in honor of first Black Ph.D. alumna

The Mae Belle Williamson Simmons Diversity Fellowships honor the legacy of a trailblazing Providence native whose lasting impact on the field of child psychology belied a life and career that were cut short.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — After a collaborative research effort led in large part by recent Ph.D. graduate N’Kosi Oates, the Graduate School at Brown University has renamed its diversity fellowships in honor of Mae Belle Williamson Simmons, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Brown in 1962 — the earliest known Black woman to earn her doctoral degree from the University.

Alycia Mosley Austin, associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the Graduate School, said the renaming will bring the late Williamson Simmons into the annals of University history, highlight her impact and bring further visibility to the diversity fellowships program, founded in 2017.

“ It says a lot about my mom. It also says a lot about the institution to do this. To have broader recognition of her work is such an honor to our family and a testament to her. ”

Michael Simmons Son of Mae Belle Williamson Simmons

Stemming from goals outlined in Brown’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, the fellowships are among a range of efforts that helped the University achieve its goal of doubling the number of graduate students from historically underrepresented groups following the plan’s 2016 launch.

“The fellowships show that we’re supporting students who have overcome obstacles to pursue research and scholarship,” Mosley Austin said. “It’s not just about recruiting more students of color. By naming the fellowships in honor of Mae Williamson Simmons, we’re highlighting that there is a tradition of academic excellence and community engagement. We’re connecting that legacy to the fellowship.”

Each fellowship provides three years of $3,000 in enhanced funding and a one-time research grant of $1,000. For years, there was an interest in renaming the fellowships in honor of the first Black Ph.D. alumna, but the challenge was to first identify that person.

“Brown's first Black male Ph.D. graduate, who earned his Ph.D. in biology in 1932, is recognized in the names of the Samuel M. Nabrit Black Graduate Student Association and the Dr. Samuel N. Nabrit Conference for Early Career Scholars,” Graduate School Interim Dean Thomas A. Lewis said. “We think it’s incredibly important to honor the achievements of the first Black female graduate as well.”

Illuminating a short life with a deep impact

The breakthrough that led to identifying Williamson Simmons required a collaborative undertaking by Graduate School leaders, including Mosley Austin and Assistant Director of Graduate Academic Diversity Maija Hallsmith, University librarians and archivists, and Oates, who devoted Summer 2022 to the research.

“I thought it was a really important and fascinating project, but I didn’t realize how challenging it was going to be,” said Oates, who earned his Ph.D. in Africana studies from Brown in May 2022. “As a trained historian, I’m used to working with bits and pieces of information and trying to stitch together a version of a narrative — but we had very few documents to work with.”

Oates spent June and July of 2022 poring over dissertations, census records, curricula vitae, yearbooks, obituaries and multiple other documents from before the era of digitization and largely predating any recording of race and gender identifiers.

“I searched each of the names through census records,” Oates said, “sometimes going through marriage records, birth records, passports — anything that I could get my hands on that would identify their gender and race.”

Oates gathered resources and records from University Archivist Jennifer Betts and Pembroke Center Archivist Mary Murphy, and he regularly reconvened with Mosley Austin to debrief and explore new avenues.

“Some offices and departments that one would think to hold such documents did not, so they had no record of her,” Oates said. “It shines a light on an era in our country when institutional racism, whether intentional or not, created these archival gaps, because capturing race and gender weren’t considered important information to track, making it difficult to account for diversity. … But the more I encountered challenges, the more I was actually emboldened to find her.”

Ultimately, he reviewed more than 80 archival Commencement programs and cross-referenced doctoral degree recipients' names with census records to crack the case and discover Williamson Simmons’ identity.

Oates discovered that Williamson Simmons attended Hope High School in Providence before enrolling as an undergraduate at Pembroke College, where women at Brown were educated until 1970, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1949 — “years before the Civil Rights Act was passed,” Oates noted. She next received a master’s in education in 1952 from Harvard, where she was the first Black woman to be appointed as a research assistant in the Harvard Graduate School of Education laboratory of human development, Mosley Austin said.

She returned to Brown for her doctoral studies, and in 1962, earned her Ph.D. in psychology, writing a dissertation titled “Operant Discrimination in Infants,” completed under the direction of the late Professor Emeritus Lewis Lipsitt, founder of the Brown University Child Study Center.

“She was really an important woman in Providence and in the field of child psychology,” Oates said. “So that was part of the work, too — sketching in the details of her life and her time here at Brown.”

Williamson Simmons’ research was apparently among the first to show that visual cues, such as different colored light bulbs, could be used to study operant conditioning — a method of learning that uses rewards and punishment to modify behavior — in early childhood, Mosley Austin said. During her brief post-doctoral career, she was an educational psychologist in the graduate division of Rhode Island College and worked at the John Hope Settlement House in Providence’s West End until her life was cut short by cancer in 1966.

In finding Mrs. Williamson Simmons, it reminds us not to forget about the graduate students who paved the way for us — even those who did not know that they were making history at that time.

N’Kosi Oates, Brown University 2022 Ph.D. Graduate Photo by Kyu Mykté
Headshot of N’Kosi Oates

“An honor to our family and a testament to her”

Once Williamson Simmons was identified, Mosley Austin tracked down her descendants and contacted her son Michael Simmons in San Francisco. He was barely 2 when his mother died, and said he and his older brother, Roddie, are deeply moved by the recognition.

“It says a lot about my mom,” Michael Simmons said. “It also says a lot about the institution to do this. To have broader recognition of her work is such an honor to our family and a testament to her.”

He said the renaming of the fellowships has prompted him to marvel anew at his mother, a Black first-generation college student who went on to earn her Ph.D., while simultaneously working and parenting, no less.

“It’s amazing what she accomplished in such a short life,” Simmons said. “And then you also think about the possibilities if she could have lived out her career and her life.”

He said their father, Ralph Simmons, was a cartographer and a musician who passed away in 2022 at age 99. Their uncle Frederick C. Williamson (Mae Belle Williamson Simmons’ brother) served on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was chairman of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. The longest-serving state historic preservation officer in the nation, he lived to be 95.

“Our family has deep roots in Providence, and my mother and my uncle were quite revered, I think,” said Simmons, who grew up in East Providence before relocating to the West Coast for college. While he doesn’t have memories of his mother, he said he heard stories throughout his life about his mother’s passion for education, her sense of humor and her brilliance.

“People told me that every time they saw her, she was carrying a book — she was just a voracious reader,” he said. “And there was just a sense that she was pretty special going through school. She stood out in her classes.”

As a father of three who develops affordable housing and community facilities, Simmons said the renewed attention on his mother’s legacy is poignant: “As a parent, the idea of leaving your kids when you’re so young, I think how horrible that must have been for her,” he said.

It’s meaningful for her children and grandchildren that Brown is celebrating her role as a trailblazing Black woman and researcher all these years later. “It was quite a courageous path to be the first — and even with all the support, it had to be hard,” Simmons said.

That’s a message that resonates with Oates, who is honored to have played a role in elevating Williamson Simmons’ story.

“The diversity fellowship demonstrates a commitment that in order to have a diverse graduate student body, you need to show that you are willing to invest financially in graduate student training,” said Oates, who received a diversity fellowship during his time at Brown. “In finding Mrs. Williamson Simmons, it reminds us not to forget about the graduate students who paved the way for us — even those who did not know that they were making history at that time.”