“I would not be here if it weren’t for someone like you who paved the way,” said Wharton Dean Erika H. James as she greeted Hettie Simmons Love WG47, the first African-American graduate from the School’s MBA program. Gathered in front of the Brick House statue at the gateway to Penn’s campus last month, the historic meeting between the School’s first Black female dean and first Black MBA graduate was the culmination of efforts by the National Youth Foundation, a non-profit organization whose vision is to promote diversity, inclusion, and gender equality through innovative literary programs. The group’s co-founder, Sophia Hanson, and student coordinator, Isabella Hanson, led a youth writing workshop with Philadelphia-area students in grades four through six to write and illustrate a children’s book, Hettie Simmons Love: Penn Pioneer. The book depicts the story of Hettie’s life growing up in the Jim Crow South, continuing her education at Fisk University, and then being admitted to Wharton, where she completed her degree with a concentration in accounting. At that time, she was the first and only Black student, and one of two women in the program.
The book was a labor of love for its organizers, complicated but not thwarted by the challenges of the pandemic that forced Zoom interviews and meetings in parking lots to exchange artwork and drafts. As they neared completion of the book, the 98-year-old Love had two requests: She was aware of the appointment of Wharton’s new dean in July 2020, and thought perhaps a quote from Dean James might be included in the book. She also desired to return to the Penn campus from her home.
After graduating from Wharton, Love was unable to leverage her credentials in the same way as her white classmates due to racist and sexist practices of that time and was shut out of opportunities in the field. Instead, she made use of her scholarship, working in the finance department of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, serving as treasurer of her church, providing bookkeeping services to local black businesses, and raising the couple’s children Karen and George, Jr. In the 1960s, Love and her late husband Dr. George H. Love C48 GED50 GRD73 moved to Harrisburg, where George continued his career as an educator and was instrumental in the desegregation of the public-school system.
Last month, traveling from her home in Harrisburg, Love joined a 30-car processional of family, friends, and fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, escorted by the Philadelphia Fire Department and Penn Public Safety to Penn’s West Philadelphia campus. Adorned in AKA’s pink and green colors, she was greeted on Locust Walk by Dean James, who celebrated her return as a Penn pioneer. “We are very honored to acknowledge what you have meant to the Wharton School,” said James as she presented Love with a special certificate. “It’s so inspiring to me, inspiring to your family, and to others … that it has resulted in a book in your honor.”
“This book recognizes the work that you’ve done and the life you have led,” James continued, “And we are thrilled to honor you today and so grateful to the National Youth Foundation for bringing your story to light for a new generation.”
Dean James noted the significance of their meeting in front of the Brick House, a statue designed and created by a Black woman artist, Simone Leigh, citing “the wonderful momentum in what has been happening in the world” to bring their connection full circle. The historic meaning of the gathering was not lost on Love either. “When word came out about you, we were all rejoicing,” she said of James’s appointment as dean. “This is what we live for, to see our people advance. You did that for us, and we appreciate you so much.”
Love’s return marked the second time in recent years that she was recognized at Penn. In 2016, she was honored at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference, the Wharton School’s longest-running student-led conference, which is named after former civil rights leader and executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney Young. An article by Lana Woods WG90 about Love’s life and time at Wharton also appeared in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of the Wharton Magazine.
Hettie Simmons Love: Penn Pioneer is co-sponsored by Gucci Changemakers, a fund supporting grass-roots organizations making local impact; the Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club; Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest Greek letter organization established by African-American college-educated women; and The Links, Incorporated, a national volunteer service organization for Black women. The book will be distributed to libraries in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Florida and even Turkey, where Love’s family spent time as part of her husband’s participation in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange. To learn more and download a copy of the book, visit the National Youth Foundation website.
Karen J. Hamilton C87 is senior associate director of stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.