Wharton Celebrates Hettie Simmons Love with Named Award

Hettie Simmons Love, WG'47, at left, and Tori Orr, WG'23,
Hettie Simmons Love, WG'47, at left, and Tori Orr, WG'23, at right

History entered the W Philadelphia hotel wearing a gold and black dress. Hettie Simmons Love, WG’47, Wharton’s first African American graduate, had come to the 49th Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Conference to celebrate an award in honor of her 100th birthday. “Tonight,” said Tori Orr, WG’23, the award’s recipient, “we celebrate you, and your courage, for paving the way for all of us.”

Growing up in the segregated South, Simmons Love dreamed of a life far beyond the confines of Jim Crow. Her father provided an early example: A business owner, he ran a successful meat market in Jacksonville, Florida, where she attended a private all-girls school from which she graduated as valedictorian.

Soon afterward, Simmons Love became one of the few American women of that era, of any race, to graduate from college, earning a mathematics degree in 1943 from Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

But the gravity of the South proved difficult to escape. With no job offers in Nashville, Simmons Love moved back to Florida, where she started working for a Black-owned life insurance company. “I wanted to change places, really,” she recalls. “I was anxious to get away from Florida.”

Fortunately, her mother had connections in Philadelphia; as a testament to Wharton’s reputation, Simmons Love had heard of the School, even though she had yet to leave the South.

She did not realize how exceptional she was until she arrived on campus. As Lana Woods, WG’90, previously wrote in Wharton Magazine, Simmons Love was not just the School’s sole African American MBA student, but one of only two women in her cohort.

“That was a shock,” Simmons Love recalls, “to be in a class of all men.” She quickly bonded with a trio of Jewish male students; this quartet of outsiders formed a study group.

Despite graduating with a Wharton MBA, with a concentration in accounting, Simmons Love entered a world that was unprepared for her.

“Every job I attempted to get,” Simmons Love says, “I was told there was no further need for employees or that they just didn’t take Black people — they were very honest about it.”

It was seven decades later when Simmons Love learned she was Wharton’s first African American graduate. When she returned to campus in 2021 to celebrate the publication of Hettie Simmons Love: Penn Pioneer, she posed for a photograph with her daughter and Dean Erika James.

“This is what we live for,” said Dean James, “to see our people advance.”

Over a million people saw the photograph when Dean James shared it online, making the image one of the most viewed pieces of content in the history of Wharton’s social media channels.

Tori Orr was one of those people. Having grown up in Pittsburgh as one of five children, and the only one to graduate college, she immediately identified with Simmons Love. “I saw so much of myself in her story,” says Orr.

Both women had essentially the same educational trajectory, from HBCUs to Wharton, overcoming obstacles along the way. “I felt seen,” Orr recalls. “I’ve been in private school for nearly all my life, where I was one of the ‘onlys’ — so, predominantly white.”

When she accepted the Hettie Simmons Love Award at the concluding gala of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Conference in December, Orr exchanged a smile with her patron. “It was such a meaningful moment,” says Orr. “Just the warmth of her face — like she was proud of me.”

For Orr, the award carries a different kind of meaning, helping her afford her MBA. “Being a first-gen college student and from a low-income family,” says Orr, “that was actually one of the reasons I was potentially not going to come to Wharton, because it just felt like what I call a debt sentence.”

Now interviewing for roles in venture capital, with the goal of one day raising her own fund or starting a company, Orr, who received degrees in mathematics from Spelman College and mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, sees named awards as a way not only to support current students, but to build a legacy at Wharton and recruit diverse talent to the School.

“Wharton almost missed out on me as a student,” Orr says, “and I would have missed out on this wonderful experience.”