Ophelia Settle Egypt

Jasmine Daria Cannon, NWHM Predoctoral Fellow in Women's Studies l 2022-2024

Ophelia Settle Egypt was a medical social worker and women’s rights advocate. She is remembered for many things, including her work to make women’s and reproductive healthcare accessible to the Black communities in Southeast Washington, DC. However, she was also critical in preserving the histories of formerly enslaved African Americans in the early twentieth century, fighting against preventable ailments in Black communities across the country, and for authoring a children’s book.  


Ophelia Settle was born on February 20, 1903 to Green Wilson Settle and Sarah Garth Settle, in a small town near Clarksville, Texas (Smith, 2013). Early on, Ophelia’s parents taught her how to read, memorize what she’d read, and recite it. After her mother died, her father sent her to live with her mother’s parents on their farm in Garland, Texas, which was about 30 miles away from Clarksville. Her grandparents could not read or write, unlike her father who was a school teacher. Spending a lot of time with them was formative to her, as she learned more about the value of learning to read, memorize, and recite for people who could not read. This experience would later inform her work with others of her grandparents’ generation, who were also formerly enslaved and could also not read or write (Stevenson). 


Settle’s educational pursuits led her to live in many places across the country. After her grandmother died, she moved in with her older sister to complete grade school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. For high school, she moved in with a great aunt and cousin in Colorado. This is where Settle saw her first “real library,” and was encouraged by teachers to continue reading. In 1921, she graduated from a high school in Denver, Colorado (Stevenson, 2011). Shortly after, she moved to Washington, DC for the first time to begin her studies at Howard University (Stevenson, 2011). 


While she was a student at Howard, Settle was both influenced by and left her mark on many great African American intellectuals and institutions. She was inspired by Howard’s first female dean, Lucy Diggs Slowe, formed lifelong friendships, and met her career mentor, Dr. Charles S. Johnson. She joined one of campus’ three sororities, Zeta Phi Beta. As a member of the budding sorority’s Alpha chapter, founded one year before her admission, her timing overlapped with author and fellow ethnographer, Zora Neale Hurston. She was one of the organization’s earliest members and in 1924, she served as the chapter’s President (Becque, and Stevenson, 2011). Her time at Howard opened her eyes to a life of possibilities for a young, educated Black woman. 


In 1925, she graduated from Howard University with her bachelor’s degree in English. Like many of her peers, she took on the charge of “lifting as she climbed” and returned to the classroom as a teacher. In the year following graduation, Settle moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to teach high school students at Orange County Training School (Mays-Machunda). During this time, southern states were heavily recruiting teachers with college education, which meant that its mission was to educate African Americans during segregation. These schools hired African American teachers, which was important to Egypt (NC DNCR). It is unclear if at this time Egypt wanted to pursue more education, but she had the opportunity to make money while she decided. 


After one year in the classroom, Settle began studying for her Master’s in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Between 1926 and 1928 while she earned her degree, she worked as a live-in nanny for friends she’d made during a summer workshop.  


During her graduate studies, she joined an expanding list of African American intellectuals who studied and researched at Penn. Twenty years after Sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ professorial tenure at Penn and publishing of “The Philadelphia Negro,” Settle also became a sociologist. She left behind from her classic English literature training to pursue “real world” research in “the father of sociology’s” footsteps. Philadelphia also continued to be a hub for generations of a distinct Black professional class during the Great Migration. Egypt was living in a prime central location between New York City’s New Negro Movement and her alma mater in Washington, DC. She was a part of a small but growing number of Black women pursuing postgraduate social science degrees. In the years surrounding her attendance at Penn, Penn awarded the first Black women PhDs in Economics and Sociology, to Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1921) and Dr. Anna Julia Johnson (1937) respectively. Other notable Black Penn alumni to date included Raymond Pace Alexander, Dudley Weldon Woodard, and Lewis Baxter Moore. 


Ophelia Settle spent the remainder of the later 1920s through the early 1940s researching and studying the lives of Black people in order to help improve their social conditions. Upon graduation from Penn, Settle moved to Nashville, Tennessee to conduct research under the supervision of Dr. Charles S. Johnson. Her research, which included over 100 interviews of formerly enslaved, elderly Black people, was the first of its kind and laid the foundation for the Works Progress Administration’s interviews of the same population. Though these interviews were not published until 1945 in Fisk University's publication “Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves,” this social scientific work gave formerly enslaved people in Tennessee and Kentucky, like Settle’s grandparents, the opportunity to share their experiences in their own words. 


After spending five years in Nashville, she spent another two in St. Louis, Missouri working as a case worker before heading to New Orleans, Louisiana to direct the Medical Social Work department in Flint Goodridge Hospital (Ward, 2020). Still active in her sorority, she was also formative in chartering new chapters of Zeta at Fisk, Dilliard, and Xavier Universities during her tenure in Nashville and New Orleans. 


In 1939, Settle returned to DC to teach social work and to serve as a field supervisor at Howard. Shortly after, she married Ivory Lester Egypt and 2 years later, they bore a son, Ivory Jr. From then on, DC served as Egypt’s permanent home. She continued to work at Howard through 1951. In between, Egypt earned her Master’s degree in Social Work from the New York School of Social Work at Columbia University in 1944 and an advanced certificate toward doctoral studies from Penn in 1950. While at Howard, she helped develop their medical social work curriculum. During a two year leave of absence before leaving her position at Howard, she also temporarily worked with DC Juvenile Detention Center. 


From the 1950s through retirement, Egypt worked as a social worker in DC and continued to serve Black communities in need. From 1950 to 1952, Egypt worked as a probation officer for DC Juvenile Court. In 1952, she became the director of Ionia R. Whipper Home for unwed African American teen mothers, one of very few of its kind in DC at that time. After 13 years of marriage, her husband Ivory Sr. died. Egypt continued to live and raise their son in DC. 


As a trained social worker, Settle Egypt is most remembered for her women’s and maternal health advocacy. She served as the founding director of the Parklands Planned Parenthood in Southeast D.C. from 1956 through 1968. After having observed how inaccessible family planning and birth control was to Anacostia residents, she went door to door and set up meetings with families in the neighborhood she served. The Washington Post described Egypt’s work as follows: “Within a year the program had become successful enough to move into permanent quarters in the basement of an office building on Alabama Avenue SE, and it included counseling for parents of small children” (Barnes, 1984).  


In the 1970s, Egypt became a member of the DC Black Writers Workshop and wrote a biography of James Weldon Johnson, her former mentor and colleague. The book was written for young readers and published in 1974. Though retired, her work was commemorated in the later years of her life. On October 15, 1981, the Parklands Planned Parenthood clinic was renamed in Egypt’s honor, D.C. Mayor Marion Berry declared October 17, Ophelia Settle Egypt day a couple of days later (Smith, 2013). 


On May 25, 1984, Ophelia Settle Egypt died in Washington, DC. She was survived by her son, Ivory Jr. and grandchildren. Egypt kept the lives of ignored Black communities at the front and center of her work, both as a sociologist and a medical social worker. Her legacy is remembered primarily in DC, but her she spent her life in many places helping even more people.