Lucy Diggs Slowe

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Lucy Diggs Slowe

Death: October 21, 1937 (52)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Charles Henry Slowe and Fannie Slowe
Partner of Mary P. Burrill
Sister of William Myers Slowe

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Lucy Diggs Slowe

Lucy Diggs Slowe (July 4, 1885 – October 21, 1937) was an American educator and athlete, and the first Black woman to serve as Dean of Women at any American university. She was a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first sorority founded by African-American women.

In 1922, Slowe was appointed the first Dean of Women at Howard University. She continued in that role for 15 years until her death. In addition, Slowe created and led two professional associations to support college administrators. Slowe was also a tennis champion, winning the national title of the American Tennis Association's first tournament in 1917, the first African-American woman to win a major sports title.

Early life

Lucy Diggs Slowe was born in Berryville, Virginia to Henry Slowe and Fannie Potter Slowe. She was one of seven children. Her father's occupation has been reported as a hotel operator, restaurant proprietor and farmer. He died before Lucy turned one and her mother died shortly after. Following her mother's death, Lucy and her sister Charlotte were raised by her aunt Martha Price in Lexington, Virginia. At thirteen, Lucy and her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended the Baltimore Colored High and Training School. She graduated second in her class in 1904, receiving one of the two-sponsored scholarships to Howard from the Baltimore City School Board

Slowe was the first person from her school to attend Howard University, the top historically black college in the nation, at a time when only 1/3 of 1% of African Americans and 5% of whites of eligible age attended any college.

Lucy Diggs Slowe was one of the nine original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at Howard University. She was instrumental in drafting the sorority's constitution. She also served as the chapter's first president.

Educational career

After graduation in 1908, Slowe returned to Baltimore to teach English in high school. During the summers, she started studying at Columbia University in New York, where she earned her Masters of Arts degree in 1915.

After earning her M.A. she returned to Washington, DC to teach. Because the District was run as part of the Federal government, African-American teachers in the public schools were part of the civil service and paid on the same scale as European Americans. The system attracted outstanding teachers, especially for Dunbar High School, the academic high school for African Americans. In 1919, the District of Columbia asked Lucy Slowe to create the first junior high school in its system for blacks and then appointed her as principal. She led Shaw junior high school until 1922, creating the first integrated in-service training for junior high school teachers in the District.

In 1917, Slowe won the American Tennis Association's first tournament. She was the first African-American woman to win a major sports title.

In 1922, Howard University selected Lucy Slowe as its first Dean of Women. Slowe was the first African-American female to serve in that position at any university in the United States. As Dean of Women at Howard University, she imparted her vision of training women for the modern world. According to Slowe’s writings, she defined the modern world as a place where all people “strove for professional achievement and personal fulfillment.” In addition to being Dean of Women, Slowe was a faculty member of the English department. Slowe continued to serve as a college administrator at Howard for the rest of her career, another 15 years until her death.

Slowe was active in Washington's African-American society, particularly dance and theater. She was a member of the DuBois Circle, a Black women’s group that met to discuss current issues and the arts.

To pool resources, share knowledge, and build collaboration, Slowe founded both the National Association of College Women, which she led for several years as first president, and the Association of Advisors to Women in Colored Schools. She served as College Dean at Howard University until her death on October 21, 1937. Slowe is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.

Personal life

Slowe met Mary P. Burrill, a playwright and fellow educator, in 1912. After Slowe moved to DC, the two women bought a house together. They were a couple for twenty-five years, though they hid their romantic relationship from all but their close friends. After Slowe was appointed Dean of Women at Howard, they purchased a house in nearby Brookland, where they lived for fifteen years until Slowe's death. The Slowe-Burrill House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020.


Inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

Window inside of Rankin Chapel at Howard University

In 1942, the United States government built a dormitory to house African-American female government workers, as housing in the city was extremely crowded because of new workers for the war effort. After World War II, the government transferred the building to Howard University for use as a dormitory. Named Lucy Diggs Slowe Hall in her honor, it opened in 1943. Located at 1919 Third Street NW, the hall today is operated by Howard as a co-ed residence.

The District of Columbia named an elementary school in Northeast DC after her. (It closed in 2008 and was re-opened as a charter school named for Mary McLeod Bethune).

In 1986, the 70th convention of the National Association of Women Deans, Administrators and Counselors' formally recognized Slowe's contributions. It presented a plaque dedicated to her to hang at its headquarters in Washington, DC.

Slowe was featured among the women champions of the exhibit Breaking the Barriers: The ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers, sponsored by the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum from August 25 to September 9, 2007.

On April 11, 2015, the First Street Tunnel project named its Tunnel Boring Machine "Lucy" in honor of Slowe.

In 2017 the Virginia Department of Historic Resources erected a historic marker dedicated to Slowe in her hometown of Berryville.


Lucy Diggs Slowe was an educator who was the first African-American woman dean of Howard University. Born on July 4, 1885, in Berryville, Virginia; died of kidney disease on October 21, 1937, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Henry Slowe and Fannie (Porter) Slowe; graduated from Howard University, 1908; Columbia University, M.A. in English, 1915.

Lucy Diggs Slowe was born on July 4, 1885, in Berryville, Virginia, the youngest of Henry and Fannie Porter Slowe 's seven children. By the time she was six years old, both of her parents had died, and she was raised thereafter by a paternal aunt in Lexington, Virginia. When she was 13, the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended public schools and graduated at the top of her class in 1904. She then became a scholarship student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first Greek-letter organization for black women.

After graduating from Howard in 1908, Slowe taught English at her alma mater, Baltimore Colored High School. In 1915, she earned a master's degree in English from Columbia University and began teaching at a Washington, D.C., high school. When the District of Columbia's first junior high school for black children was established in 1919, Slowe was appointed principal. In this position, she instituted an integrated in-service course for junior high school teachers, which was conducted by Columbia University. Three years later, in 1922, Slowe was appointed dean of women at Howard University, the first black woman to achieve that position. She also served as a professor of English and education.

Throughout her professional career, Slowe was active in the struggle to elevate black women to a level of equality with whites and black men, and she sought to make the most of her role as women's dean. Deans of women at black colleges traditionally had functioned more as chaperons or guardians of morality than as educators, but as an administrator and educator, Slowe was far more concerned with developing black woman culturally and preparing them for leadership roles than with enforcing strict rules. She commented in The Education of Negro Women and Girls that "when a college woman cannot be trusted to go shopping without a chaperon, she is not likely to develop powers of leadership."

Slowe was also concerned that black women students were not benefiting from a new national movement in higher education that focused on broadening the "whole" student by integrating career guidance, health services, athletics, and cultural activities into the academic experience. She took steps to expose her students to the fine arts, by instituting a cultural series, and to refinement, by organizing women's social functions.

Slowe's mission to improve conditions for her students was also achieved through her active participation in organizations that promoted the advancement of black women. In 1923, she became the first president of the National Association of College Women (NACW), an organization of black women college graduates of accredited liberal arts colleges and universities. Its mission was three-fold: to raise the standards in the colleges where black women were educated; to improve conditions for black women faculty; and to encourage advanced scholarship among women. Another priority of the NACW was to influence the presidents of black colleges to appoint well-trained deans of women. In 1929, she organized the National Association of Deans of Women and Advisors to Girls in Negro Schools, which became independent of the NACW in 1935 as the number of women advisors and deans of black colleges grew. With Mary McLeod Bethune , Slowe helped found the National Council of Negro Women and served as the organization's first executive secretary. She served on the advisory board of the National Youth Administration, and was an active member of the National Association of Deans of Women, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the YWCA.

An accomplished tennis player, Slowe won 17 cups in an era when few blacks competed with whites in that sport. She sang contralto in the St. Francis Catholic Church and in the Madison Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. During the last 15 years of Slowe's life, Mary Burrill , a recognized Washington, D.C., public school teacher and playwright, was her partner and housemate. Still active as dean of women at Howard, Lucy Diggs Slowe died of kidney disease in October 1937. A stained-glass window in Howard University's chapel commemorates her lasting influence, and a dormitory is named her memory.

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Lucy Diggs Slowe's Timeline

July 4, 1885
October 21, 1937
Age 52