Preserving WSU Pharmacy’s Black history

A class picture from the 1912 Chinook yearbook. Jessie Senora Sims, pictured in a white blouse, was the only Black woman in her class.

The first recorded Black student who graduated from Washington State University (or Washington State College as it was known at the time) was a Black woman named Jessie Senora Sims. She received a pharmacy degree in 1913 and was the only woman and Black student in her graduating class of six students. According to a 1914 Chinook publication, she was known to her classmates as “Sister Sims” and described herself as a “Pharmacister.”

Not much is known about Sims after she graduated from Washington State College (WSC). There were no smart phones to snap a quick photo, or social media platforms to stay in touch. Fortunately, a dear friend of the college, Felicia Gaskins, widow of the late Bill Gaskins (’69), grew up knowing Sims. Gaskins recounts Sims’ history along with her own memories of Black history at WSU. In preserving these memories, she hopes to keep Jessie’s legacy alive through the scholarship established by the late Dean Mahmoud Abdel-Monem:

“Jessie wanted students to know what a great place WSU was to be a student and always encouraged them to work hard. She really appreciated being able to interact with the students. Students who receive her scholarship should know that it took a lot of courage for a young woman like Jessie to come to a school that was essentially all white male at the time and even more rare for an African American woman to graduate and practice pharmacy. We hope this scholarship opens the doors for a more diverse student body and future health care workers.”

Thanks to generous donations from Dean Monem and the Gaskins, 17 students have been awarded scholarships at the college. Currently, Black student pharmacists make up 6 percent of the student body at the college.

Gaskins was unsure if Jessie practiced pharmacy after graduating Washington State College. It has been noted that Sims practiced pharmacy for a period of time in Tacoma. There was conjecture that it may have been because she had an illness that left her wheelchair bound which prevented her from continuing to practice pharmacy:

A photo of Jessie Senora Sims. It is unknown when this portrait of Sims was taken. Sims passed away in 1978 in Tacoma. Former Dean Mahmoud Abdel-Monem established a fund in her name in 1991.

“Whether [Jessie] practiced pharmacy or not, she considered herself a pharmacist and participated in various organizations of pharmacy. [As a student] she also worked at the Corner Drug Store in Pullman. We don’t know a whole lot about the history of people who lived during that time. She came from Alabama and her family settled in Spokane which is how she found out about WSC. One of the interesting things that I’m sure is true, Jessie’s mother encouraged her to double major in home economics.”

By 1918, Jessie Sims married Harry Walker and was living in Spokane. They eventually moved back to Tacoma where she was well known for a food catering business that she operated out of her home.

“Jessie and her husband didn’t have any children. Due to her disability, her husband renovated her kitchen so she could start a catering business. She was very well known in Tacoma.”

When asked how Jessie described her experience at WSU, Gaskins spoke fondly of the stories Jessie would tell her.

“I remember Jessie telling people that there was no housing for her on campus when she attended WSC and she was offered a room in the president’s house. At the time, there were no dormitories, so students rented rooms often in private homes. The Jessie Senora Sims Walker scholarship was created by Dean Abdel Monem in 1991 and is still available annually for pharmacy students. My family and I are honored to continue to contribute to the scholarship that honors this WSU pioneer.”