Penn’s Hidden Figure – Hettie Simmons Love Honored at Age 98

July 13, 2021

In 2020, at the age of 14, Isabella Hanson was inspired to launch a national poetry competition on Black Lives Matter. Powered by Gucci, Isabella’s “I Matter” poetry contest drew participation from students in 26 states. The top poems and art were made into a compilation book honoring the lives of Black people killed in 2020. This project followed her 2020 Juneteenth Celebration, which she hosted to bring racial healing to the community at the historic Fussell House – a site which helped lead over 2,000 slaves to freedom. Isabella is an Honor Roll student at Kennett High School in Pennsylvania. She holds a leadership role in her school’s Diversity Club and is a Youth Founder of the National Youth Foundation. She is a member of her school’s track team, Model UN and Humanitarian Club. In her spare time, Isabella takes sewing lessons, is a member of Live Like Blaine Leadership Academy and GirlGov.

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(Courtesy of Isabella Hanson)

American history often overlooks the rich stories of women and people of color. I had the unique opportunity to lead a book project in Philadelphia on someone who falls into both categories – Hettie Simmons Love.

In 1947, Mrs. Love made history as the first African American to graduate from the preeminent University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. However, because demographic graduate information was not collected on race, it was not until 2016 that she learned of her status as a trailblazer.

During the pandemic, I worked with students from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to write and illustrate an original picture book chronicling her life. The story of Hettie Simmons Love began in Jacksonville, Florida less than 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. As a young girl in the 1920s, Hettie Simmons attended the prestigious Boylan-Haven Boarding School. Boylan-Haven, which was created to educate former slaves, would go on to graduate many accomplished African Americans.

After graduating from Boylan-Haven, she enrolled at a top HBCU, Fisk University, where she excelled in mathematics and joined the renowned Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated – a sorority that includes Vice President Kamala Harris as a member. Upon graduating from Fisk University, Hettie Simmons traveled North to study business at the Wharton School.

(Hettie Simmons Love ‘s graduation photo)

While learning there, she quickly realized that she was the only woman and only African American in her classes. In 1947, she graduated and celebrated with her family and future husband George Love. Mr. and Mrs. Love had two amazing children, one of whom was my mother’s childhood teacher. It was not until 2016, at an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority event, that Mrs. Love first learned of her standing as the first African American, male or female, to graduate from the Wharton School.

In the spring of 2021, I helped to plan a ceremony that brought Hettie Simmons Love, age 98, back to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. When she arrived on May 15, 2021, she was proudly greeted by the students who created the book on her life, as well as the first African American and the first woman Dean for the Wharton School, Erika James. Meeting Mrs. Love was a major highlight of my life. She is a warm, kind, and caring woman who represents everything I want to be.

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