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.