Roosevelt University in Chicago, Schaumburg and Online - Logo
Roosevelt University Founding Faculty: Rose Hum Lee, the first Chinese American woman to chair an academic department at an American university.

Pioneering Roosevelt sociologist honored in Founding Faculty lecture

Posted: 12/03/2013

In 1945, the year Roosevelt was founded, Rose Hum Lee was hired to teach in the Department of Sociology. Eleven years later when she was appointed chair of the department, she became the first Chinese American woman to chair an academic department at an American university.

Lee’s fascinating life and distinguished academic career were the topics of Roosevelt’s second annual Founding Faculty lecture series held on Oct. 3.

“From Boise, Idaho, where it had the largest Chinese community in the U.S. at one time because of the mines, Dr. Lee went on to receive her PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago,” said Evelyn Hu-Dehart, who delivered the lecture. “As a woman, as an Asian American and as an academic, Dr. Lee was way ahead of her times and she did it at Roosevelt,” said Hu-Dehart, a Brown University professor of history and director of the school’s Center of the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

For more than 20 years Lee was the only sociologist studying the Chinese in America. Her most important work, The Chinese in the United States of America, was published in 1960. in it she provides an overview of Chinese-American relations: demographic trends, Chinatowns, culture, economic institutions, tongs (secret societies), family life and religion.

A pacifist and a Quaker, Lee was fiercely anticommunist and remained close to Roosevelt University, even after moving to Phoenix in 1961.

“The faculty at Phoenix College is like ours at Roosevelt,” she wrote in a 1962 letter to Roosevelt President Edward Sparling, “and it is the only vocal group in the community sponsoring freedom of speech, interracial and interfaith relations, academic freedom, etc.”

In Arizona, her research focused on migrant laborers and the legal status of American Indian children. She died of a brain embolism on March 25, 1964 in Phoenix.