Esther Popel Shaw

Tiara McKinney '25, Associate Editor

Esther Popel Shaw was the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College in 1919. During her time at Dickinson, she pioneered a path for herself and other students like her, leaving an indelible impact on the campus and the greater community. Popel Shaw was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and she attended the Central High School in Harrisburg before beginning her education at Dickinson. 

While at Dickinson College, she studied French, Spanish, German, and Latin. Popel Shaw had to commute to Dickinson every day because, at the time, students of color were not permitted to live on campus. Despite the racist conditions that she faced, Popel Shaw persisted and was successful in her studies. While at Dickinson, Esther Popel Shaw joined Delta Sigma Theta, an African American sorority founded in 1913 and active today. Popel Shaw was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa national honors society upon her graduation from Dickinson, and she was awarded the John Patton Memorial Prize. Later, Dickinson College honored Popel Shaw by awarding her a posthumous doctorate, and apologizing to her family for the racism that Shaw endured while at Dickinson. 

Popel Shaw was also an author and a teacher. She published her first literary piece during her high school career and later became a highly-regarded poet, known for her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. After her schooling at Dickinson, she taught at several high schools, one located in Baltimore and the other in Washington DC. 

Popel Shaw’s legacy lives on at Dickinson College in the form of the Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity (PSC). The Popel Shaw Center’s mission is, according to their website, to “help community members develop the awareness and skills necessary to recognize various forms of racial, ethnic, and national inequity and respond thoughtfully”. PSC aims to continue the advocacy of Esther Popel Shaw by working with students of color and equipping them with tools to take advantage of all that the Dickinson education offers. 

Reverend Yvette Davis, the current director of the PSC, describes Esther Popel Shaw as a “badass, and a powerful African American woman”. According to Davis, Mrs. Popel Shaw was a crusader for black students and other students of color and she not only strived for them to have access to education, but for them to have a “sense of belonging” too. 

Since joining the Popel Shaw Center, Reverend Yvette Davis says that she has worked with the Black Student Union and other groups on campus. Davis states that during her time at Dickinson, she plans to have listening sessions with students to understand their needs, she also hopes to build on the work that peer tutoring groups on campus have begun. Davis aspires to provide information through the Popel Shaw Center “so that students of different racial groups can have conversations and have a better understanding of [each other]”. 

Reverend Davis asserts, “To fulfill Mrs. Popel Shaw’s legacy, it is important that Dickinson College is not only committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion but that Dickinson College is also committed to fostering and maintaining a culture of belonging for black students and all students of color.”