Ophelia Settle Egypt

Photo from from the 1925 Howard University yearbook. The Bison (Howard University 1925): page 58.

African American, Ethnography, Activism

Ophelia Settle Egypt


Born in a small town near Clarksville, Texas, in 1903, Ophelia Settle graduated from Howard University with a BA in 1925. After teaching for a year at the Orange County Training School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she moved north to attend graduate school and earned an MA in Sociology (1928) from the University of Pennsylvania. Later, she received an MS from the New York School of Social Work (1944) and acquired an advanced certificate for work toward a PhD at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work (1950).

Dr. Charles S. Johnson, director of the Social Science Department at Fisk University in Tennessee, hired Ophelia Settle in1928 as an instructor and research assistant to join him in establishing the center and researching the conditions of slavery with ex-slaves. From 1928 to 1930, she conducted surveys about the current living conditions and socioeconomic backgrounds of the Nashville African American community. Realizing that the people she was interviewing were peers of her ex-slave grandparents, she began to collect narratives of their enslavement experiences and petitioned Johnson to continue this work. Her impressive oral history interviews with more than 100 people from Tennessee and Kentucky, who had been enslaved as children, form one of the earliest bodies of oral interviews of African Americans or any cultural community in the U. S.  Without recording equipment, she worked with a transcriber to capture narratives of personal experiences of bondage in the narrators’ own words and speech varieties.  Fisk University published thirty-eight of these interview transcripts in Unwritten History of Slavery; Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (1945/1968). Settle Egypt also conducted fieldwork for several of Johnson’s projects, including leading the field research team for Johnson’s Growing Up in the Black Belt in Macon County, Alabama. She is credited with helping to expose the impact of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on sharecroppers there. 

After leaving Fisk, she became a welfare case worker in St. Louis, Missouri, served as the head of social services at a hospital in New Orleans, and assisted in the development of Howard University’s School of Social Work, where she was on the faculty from 1937 to 1948.  During this time, she wrote a children’s book about her Fisk colleague and mentor, James Weldon Johnson and his literary use of folklore (1974). During the 1950s, Settle Egypt also briefly worked as a probation officer in the D.C. Juvenile Courts and as executive director of a home for unwed mothers. As a leader in family planning, she established, opened, and later directed the first private family planning clinic in Southeast Washington, D.C., serving some of the poorest communities in the city.

Among her publications are:

Ophelia Settle Egypt,  J. Masuoka, and Charles S. Johnson, eds. Unwritten History of Slavery; Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (1945/1968)

Phyllis May-Machunda

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