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Maudelle Brown Bousfield: The Courage to Be First

by Kim Schmidt / Apr 5, 2019

Maudelle Tanner Brown Bousfield

When she graduated from Illinois in 1906, Maudelle Brown Bousfield was the only African American woman on campus. A handful of years later, she continued to break down barriers in education—this time in the Chicago Public School system.

When mathematics teacher Maudelle Brown Bousfield told the Chicago Board of Education that she was going to sit for the principal’s exam in 1926, she recalls that they “laughed in her face.” But Maudelle came from a family that prized education as much as they did tenacity, so that didn’t deter her one bit.

She sat for the exam and received one of the top scores, and with her appointment at Keith Elementary School in 1927, she became the first African American principal in the Chicago Public School System. She went on to become the first African American principal of a Chicago high school, Wendell Phillips in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and served there until her retirement in 1950.

These pioneering steps were not Maudelle’s first. She was also the first African American woman to attend Illinois, arriving on campus in 1903 and graduating with honors just three years later with degrees in astronomy and mathematics. And she was the first African American Dean of Girls named in the Chicago Public School System, a position she took on in 1920, seven years before she became principal.

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