Hettie Simmons Love: The story of a Wharton pioneer

A new book and a visit with Dean Erika James honor Wharton's first African-American MBA graduate.

“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, who graduated in 1947 as 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 in May, 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 nonprofit organization whose vision is to promote diversity, inclusion, and gender equality through innovative literary programs.

Hettie Simmons Love sits on a large ornate chair with daughter Karen Love standing to her left and Wharton Dean Erika James at her right in front of the Brick House statue.
Hettie Simmons Love (center) and daughter Karen Love (left) met with Wharton Dean Erika James at the Brick House statue on campus in May 2021. (Image: Sandrien B Photography)

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.

“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.”

This story is by Karen J. Hamilton. Read more at Wharton Magazine.