New UI residence hall will bear name of university's first African-American alumna, a true pioneer

URBANA — Tired of the underage drinking and truancy associated with a liquor store across the street from her high school, the new principal took matters into her own hands.

Maudelle Tanner Brown Bousfield, who'd broken ground the year before as the first black principal at Chicago's Wendell Phillips Academy, called police after witnessing an underage liquor sale — not once, but six times, until she found a judge willing to take the case.

The liquor store was put out of business and its owner fined.

That episode from 1940 illustrated the quiet determination of Bousfield, who led a life of "firsts."

She was Chicago's first black elementary school principal and first black high school principal, and became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Illinois — in 1906.

More than a century later, she is being honored by her alma mater.

Bousfield's name will grace the newest UI residence hall, set to open next August at the corner of First Street and Peabody Drive as part of the new Ikenberry Commons complex.

It will be the first major UI building to carry the name of an African-American.

Her grandson, Midian Evans of Silver Spring, Md., chokes up every time he talks about it.

"We are absolutely thrilled," he said in an interview earlier this month, just after UI trustees approved the designation. "To think a member of our family is to be honored in such a way, it's just unbelievable."

Administrators in the campus Housing Division dug up Bousfield's history as they searched for alumni to commemorate on the new buildings in Ikenberry Commons.

Housing Director Jack Collins said he asked his staff to consider UI graduates who "would be reflective of the makeup of our student body today." Bousfield "really stood out," said Collins, who was struck by her courage and pioneering work as an educator.

They did more research on Bousfield's family history and discovered that her daughter, Maudelle Evans, 97, is still alive in Arizona, as are her two grandsons.

"It's a fabulous story," Collins said.

Maudelle Tanner Brown was born June 1, 1885, in St. Louis to an educated family that was part of a rising black middle class, according to a biography in J.C. Smith's "Notable Black American Women." Her father, Charles Brown, was a longtime St. Louis public school teacher and principal. Her mother, Arrena Isabella Tanner, was also an educator, her uncle Benjamin Tanner was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and her cousin Henry Tanner was a noted painter.

A musical prodigy, Maudelle Brown became the first black woman accepted to St. Louis' Charles Kunkel Conservatory of Music, which she attended while in high school.

She enrolled at the UI in 1903 and graduated in three years, majoring in mathematics and astronomy. She helped pay for her studies by tutoring students in math and playing the piano at sorority dances.

At the time, the university had fewer than 2,500 students; only a quarter of them were women, and African-American students were a rarity.

Jonathan Rogan had been the first African-American to enroll, attending the UI for one year in 1887-88. The first African-American graduate was William Walter Smith, who earned a bachelor's degree in literature and arts in 1900 and a bachelor's in civil engineering in 1907.

The university treated black students "fairly well," but they were not totally welcome, said Winton Solberg, a retired UI history professor who has written extensively about the university's past.

No official policies excluded blacks, but "it was a question of the attitudes of most students and many faculty members," Solberg said. "Blacks just didn't enter into their consciousness at the time."

The university had no residence halls, so students lived in approved houses in the community. But most homeowners wouldn't take in African-American students, Solberg said.

Maudelle Brown later reflected that she suffered no discrimination at the UI.

Still, "it took a fair amount of heroism on the part of black students to come here and find a place to live and eat and go to class and be largely ignored," Solberg said. "It could not have been comfortable."

After graduation, Maudelle Brown taught school in East St. Louis, Baltimore and St. Louis. In 1914, she married Midian Bousfield, a physician in Kansas City who had received his medical degree from Northwestern University.

The coupled moved to Chicago, where Midian Bousfield practiced medicine and held prominent positions in black social and health organizations, including the presidency of the Chicago Urban League and the National Medical Association. During World War II, he organized and became commanding officer of a large hospital in Arizona for an all-black division based there. He died in 1948.

Maudelle Bousfield had put her career on hold when her daughter was born in 1915 but acquired a degree from Chicago's Mendelssohn Conservatory of Music in 1920. She started teaching math again in 1922 at Wendell Phillips.

Racial tensions were apparent at the time, following a violent 1919 race riot in the city. Most teachers and administrators in Chicago schools were white, and black teachers had trouble finding permanent jobs, according to historical accounts.

Bousfield quickly won praise from students and faculty for her creative teaching methods and was named the first black dean of girls in 1926.

The principal had recommended her, but school board officials were reluctant to hire a black dean, according to Dionn Dans, an Indiana University professor who wrote about Bousfield for the "Journal of Negro Education."

They instituted a new rule requiring applicants to have five years of experience; Bousfield had four, which was the requirement for principal. Undaunted, she asked if the board would hire her if she could pass the principal's exam, which few black employees had taken. They agreed, and she finished in the top 20 out of 600 people.

From there she became principal at two Chicago elementary schools, then returned in 1939 as principal at Phillips before retiring in 1950.

Among her students at Phillips were attorney Lester McKeever, current treasurer of the UI Board of Trustees, one of Chicago's first black accountants and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; and UI Trustee James Montgomery, a civil rights attorney.

McKeever said Bousfield was also his principal at Douglas Elementary School. He was unaware of her ties to the UI until recently and said he's pleased the school is recognizing "such a significant person in our community."

McKeever, who graduated from the UI in 1955, when local barber shops still refused to serve black students, said he was amazed to learn how early Bousfield had attended the university.

He said Bousfield fostered "an excellent academic atmosphere" at Phillips despite its neighborhood surroundings. His classmates went on to become noted physicians, authors and professionals.

"It was not an elite school. It was just one where kids were given an opportunity to progress," he said.

Midian Evans and his brother heard similar testimonials to their grandmother from former students when they were growing up in Chicago.

Their gym teacher and football coach at Harlan High School was Sherman Howard, one of the first African-American players in the NFL. When he found out Bousfield was their grandmother, Howard told them she was the one who had encouraged him to work hard, win a football scholarship, complete his education and pursue a football career.

"He told us, 'I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for your grandmother,'" Evans recalled.

Evans described his grandmother as a warm, intelligent person who "demanded excellence in anything that she did."

Bousfield also took a firm stance against "separate but equal" education, speaking out against segregated schools and the notion that black children were inferior students. For her master's thesis at the UI Chicago in 1931, she studied the impact of poverty and other environmental factors on the achievement of black children, and urged educators to develop alternatives to racially biased IQ tests.

Though she was principal in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, she never had any trouble from the community, Evans said.

"Everybody in the neighborhood ... knew that she was doing everything she could to see that the kids in her school got everything that they deserved," he said.

Evans remembers sitting in the car with his grandmother one day while they were stopped at a traffic light in an area then considered "skid row." She pointed out a homeless man sitting curled up in a doorway.

"I said, 'Grandma, what can I possibly learn from him?" he recalled. "She said to me, 'What you can learn from him is the mistakes he made to get him where he is today.' She didn't have to say any more. That always stuck with me."

His grandmother's house was right behind his parents' home, and he spent the night there with his brother, Leonard, every Friday or Saturday.

A White Sox fan, Bousfield frequently listened to games on the radio and "smoked like a chimney," Evans said.

She also had "the most elegant garden in the entire neighborhood," which was once recognized by the Chicago Gardening Club.

"Even as she got older and lost her eyesight, she was able to maintain her garden," said Evans, who has adopted his grandmother's hobby.

Bousfield never talked to her grandsons about the hurdles she faced as an African-American woman, Evans said. Her attitude was "we're going to overcome and achieve," he said, adding that college was a given in their family.

Bousfield was invited back to the UI in 1965 to be inducted in Phi Beta Kappa. She died in October 1971 at the age of 86.

"When you look back and you find out all she had to overcome and what she had to deal with in her life, it's really quite amazing," Evans said.

 

Highlights of an educator's life

June 1, 1885 — Maudelle Tanner Brown born in St. Louis, Mo., daughter of Charles H. Brown and Arrena Isabella Tanner.

1903 — Graduates from Charles Kunkel Conservatory of Music in St. Louis; was first African-American student admitted.

1906 — Receives bachelor's degree in mathematics and astronomy, with honors, from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; first African-American woman to attend UI and first to graduate.

1914 — Marries Midian Othello Bousfield.

1915 — Gives birth to daughter, Maudelle.

1920 — Receives bachelor's degree from Mendelssohn Conservatory of Music, Chicago.

1922 — Starts teaching math at Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago.

1926 — Becomes Chicago's first African-American dean at Wendell Phillips.

1927 — Becomes Chicago's first African-American principal at Keith Elementary School.

1929-1931 — Serves as 6th Supreme Basileus, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

1931 — Obtains master's degree from UI-Chicago; becomes principal at Stephan A. Douglas Elementary School, Chicago.

1939 — Becomes principal at Wendell Phillips; is first black principal of a multiracial school.

1950 — Retires; writes weekly column for Chicago Defender; hosts radio talk show for women, "Maudelle Bousfield Chats."

Oct. 14, 1971 — Dies in Chicago at age 86.

2012 — University of Illinois names Bousfield Hall in her honor.

Comments

News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments