Naomi Pollard Dobson (1883-1971)

By Hanna Houser

When Wilhelmina Naomi Pollard entered Northwestern University in 1901, she was one of only two Black female students in her class. Four years later, she became the first Black woman to earn a degree from the institution, beginning her life as a trailblazer. Later in life, she was dubbed “a pioneering spirit” by her younger brother Fritz Pollard, who blazed a few trails of his own as an honored football star and NFL hall of famer. [1]

But as often has happened, Naomi Pollard’s history, her story, has been buried by the weight of the accomplishments of others of the time, including her far more well-known brother. But her story deserves to be told.

A Chance Encounter Reveals a Remarkable Life

In 2021, LaVerne Gray, Assistant Professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Sciences, found a short reference to librarian Naomi Pollard in materials from Wilberforce University, the historically Black school where Gray had earned her undergraduate degree. Curious about this “mystery woman” from her school’s past, with whom she shared a profession and a school, she began investigating. She soon discovered that Naomi had grown up in Rogers Park, and  contacted the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. At almost the same time,  RPWRHS had begun an in-depth exploration of the local family once thought of as “The Forgotten Pollards” [2] and welcomed the opportunity to explore Naomi’s life in more depth. Gray and RPWRHS shared resources, and Gray published “Naomi Willie Pollard Dobson: a Pioneering Black Librarian” in 2022. [3]

“Sometimes when we tell these historical narratives, stories, although we look at the central figures and central figures that may be connected, there are so many people at the margins who are also connected to those central figures — and that was the whole point of me looking at her,” Gray said.

Rogers Park Becomes Home to a Family Seeking Opportunity

When she was born on October 11, 1883 in Mexico, Missouri, Naomi (as a child often called “Willie”) was the second daughter of John William Pollard, a Union Army Veteran and local barber, and Catherine Amanda Hughes. In the 1880 Census, three years before Naomi was born, John Pollard, 29, is identified as a barber. Amanda was 22, daughter Artie was 4, and son Luther, 2. [4]

When Naomi was a toddler, John and Amanda uprooted the family to escape oppressive post-Civil War segregation practices. Fleeing north to Chicago, they stayed briefly in the Rose Hill area of Edgewater, and then settled in a new suburb to the north, the Village of Rogers Park. The year was 1886.

John and Amanda Pollard’s decision to live in Rogers Park was likely motivated by their search for educational and business opportunities. In a 1976 documentary, Luther Pollard, their last surviving child, remembered that John intentionally wanted to be close to Northwestern University to instill and reinforce intellectual drive within his eight children. [5]

As the first Black family to settle in the neighborhood, the Pollards’ story is integral to the history of Rogers Park itself. John opened a barber shop at what is now 7017 North Ravenswood Avenue, and put the family on the path to becoming  The Remarkable Pollards. [6]

When Naomi was a child, the family lived in an apartment over the barber shop on the main shopping street of the Village. [7]

The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad tracks ran at street level along what was originally called Market Street, a name later changed to Ravenswood Park. The Rogers Park Station was situated on the west side of the block from Greenleaf to Lunt Avenues. Directly across the street, at then number 4316 Market/Ravenswood Park, (now known as 7017 North Ravenswood) was the barber shop where John Pollard ran his business.

Growing up in Rogers Park, Naomi attended the Rogers Park elementary school at the corner of what is now Lunt and Damen Avenues. She appears in the front row of a fifth and sixth grade class photo published in an unnamed newspaper as a retrospective “Half-a-Century Ago” feature on October 28, 1944, dating the original photo to 1894. [8]

From the RPWRHS Collection
Northwestern University Alumni Record: Naomi Pollard Dobson

After elementary school, she, like her older brother Luther and younger sister Ruby, attended Lake View High School, one in a student population of about 1,000. [9] She graduated on June 28, 1901 and enrolled in Northwestern University’s college of Liberal Arts that same year. [10]

Her college experience was one of isolation — an experience common amongst Black students at the time, according to Charla Wilson, curator for the Black experience at Northwestern University Libraries.

In the early 1900s, housing barriers prevented Black students from living on campus, Wilson said. While there weren’t clear barriers to admission, Northwestern had not admitted Black students as a practice.

Those who didn’t have family in the area would commute to campus, or stay with Evanston residents who rented rooms to students, according to Wilson.

In one incident, Isabella Ellis, a black female admitted to Northwestern before Naomi, was unable to graduate due to the policy. With family in Texas, Wilson said, the university allowed her housing in the dorms without knowing she was Black. Soon after she arrived on campus. students protested, prompting her withdrawal from Northwestern.[11]

 Citing reports from W.E.B. Dubois’s “The Education of Black People,” Wilson said it was uncommon for Black students to participate in social events and clubs. [12]

Naomi, with her family settled nearby, was able to live at home while earning her degree — a demonstration of her father’s foresight in dealing with inaccessibility within higher education for Black students.

Yet, even without a community, Naomi’s resilience shows in her one known submission to Northwestern Magazine.

A trailblazer once more, she published “Even in Beggary,” a four-paragraph short story that  portrays the “othering” of Black Americans rejected by the contemporary society. A white man, unemployed and hungry, asks for food from several passersby who decline, until a Black pedestrian offers help. When finally given a meal by the stranger, the white beggar accepts the food with “condescension” — hesitant to embrace an offering from a Black man. [13]

“I mean, talk about, kind of, resistance literature,” Gray said, “She said, even in beggary. So if there’s a white person who’s destitute, begging on the street, (who), you know, needs me — If there was a black person who walked by and was willing to give them something, they wouldn’t really use it.”

Northwestern University Alumni Record: Naomi Pollard Dobson

In the Northwestern Syllabus yearbook Class of 1905 listing, Naomi wrote that “Kind hearts are worth more than coronets” — a statement that speaks to her enduring values, beyond accolades. [14] 

Despite an academic experience as an isolated minority, Naomi wrote in a Class of 1905 survey she completed circa 1955 that she had confidence in future graduates — but added the note that her assessment was “sometimes mixed with doubt.” [15] For Wilson, that outlook is emblematic of many Black people prior to the civil rights movement.

“I think there always had to be some optimism, that things have to get better,” Wilson said. “And I wonder if that’s where (she’s) coming from? You know, just this hope that things will be better than (what) she experienced.”

Professional Growth Leads Naomi to New Challenges in Chicago and Beyond

After Northwestern, Naomi began her professional career as an educator at a high school in Baltimore, Maryland. On the Northwestern alumni survey, she reported this job as at “Baltimore High School,” but it is highly likely that she taught at the only “colored” high school in Baltimore’s segregated school system. It was called the Colored High and Training School in 1905, but is now named after Naomi’s brother’s namesake, the Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The survey also records that she returned to Illinois after a year or two in Baltimore, when she took a job in East St. Louis’s Lincoln High School.

In 1910 she returned home to Chicago to complete summer courses at the University of Chicago’s College of Education. In 1910, all eight siblings, ranging in age from 33 to 13, were still unmarried and lived with their parents over the barber shop. [16]

The very next year, John and Amanda bought the house at 1928 West Lunt Avenue, next door to empty lot where the school Naomi had attended as a child had previously stood. That house would remain the home family until after Luther’s death in 1978. [17]

In 1911, Naomi turned to a new path when she enrolled in a Library Training School program at Chicago Public Library. [18]

As a librarian, her talents were quickly recognized. After completion of her training course, she became the senior assistant librarian at the library’s Hebrew Institute branch on the West Side near Hull House, serving a densely populated neighborhood of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe.

By 1914, she moved again, to Wilberforce University, where she was one of only a few Black faculty at the historically Black college. [19] At Wilberforce, she worked as an instructor of library economy, and according to Gray, a Wilberforce alumna, became an instrumental presence at the university.

“In her own space, as the head and instructor of library science, Dobson brought life to the collections and the university community,” Gray said in her 2022 essay. “She was able to reconstruct how access, use, and support of the curriculum was necessary for the students matriculating at the historic Black institution.”

Baltimore Sun, June 23, 1905
Baltimore Sun, June 27, 1905
The Pollard Family Home today, at 1928 West Lunt Avenue in Rogers Park
Wilberforce University Catalogue, 1914-1915

Marriage Leads to Leadership In Iowa

Things shifted again on September 16, 1916, when she traded the name Naomi Pollard for a new one — Mrs. Richard Allen Dobson. [20] Richard Dobson was a physician and fellow Northwestern graduate, though there is no evidence the pair met at Northwestern, according to Gray.

The newlyweds began a life in Iowa, where the young doctor established a medical practice in Sioux City. Less than a year after the wedding, on June 27, 1917, the couple’s only child, Richard Allen Dobson, Jr., was born in Sioux City. [21] Shortly after, Dr. Dobson took over a medical practice in Des Moines, [22] where the family lived at least until after Richard registered for the World War I draft, [23] but by January, 1920, they had moved back to Sioux City. [24]

Although she had abandoned her career as a librarian, Naomi became deeply engaged in civic work, her activities frequently appearing in the pages of the Sioux City Journal and other Iowa newspapers.

Within the socially active circle of Black women in Sioux City, she became a well-regarded leader, hosting meetings of the local women’s club, known as The Dames, and first appearing as a speaker at the Sioux City’s National Day of Prayer observation in 1924, speaking on “The Relation of the Races.” [25] In the years that followed she would give more talks on Black history, voting and racial harmony, according to Gray.

She was active in the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, the Sioux City Dames and the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Club, working as an advocate for maternal health and civil rights for four decades, as documented by LaVerne Gray.

By 1932, her record of leadership led her to the Presidency of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. [26] She had served the group in various offices since 1926, and continued on the Board of Trustees after her term as president ended.

As President, she continued work on a project began in 1919, when the group established a residence for Black female students barred from campus housing at the University of Iowa.

In 1919, the Dobsons were among the early contributors to the fundraising campaign, and Naomi served on the Board of Directors for the home for two decades. Her effort was not only about contributing to the empowerment of Black women in academia — it was also a full-circle moment for the first Black woman to graduate from Northwestern University, who likely remembered what had happened to Isabella Ellis at her alma mater decades earlier.

Her commitment to advocacy for the Black community in Sioux City was relentless. In the 1940s she worked with a delegation of citizens to prevent the segregation of  city swimming pools, and was a founding member of the Sioux City NAACP. She was elected as the group’s Vice President in 1952, [27] and later served as President.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 1, 1919,
The Bystander, September 12, 1919
The Sioux City Journal, March 1, 1953.

Retirement in New York City Reunites the Family, Offers More Chance for Service

In 1954, Dr. Dobson retired, and the couple moved to New York City, where their son was a pediatrician at Harlem Hospital.[28] There, she continued her participation in civic affairs, working as a volunteer for the hospital and continuing her civil rights advocacy.

Beloved by all around her, The Amsterdam News asked readers to submit get-well cards to Naomi when she was hospitalized in January 1971.

“Choose your prettiest get-well card and get it off post-haste to Mrs. Richard A. (Wilhelmina) Dobson, Sr., at Roosevelt Hospital where she is ailing,” the article asks. “The lovely lady is the mother of distinguished doctor Richard A. Dobson, Jr., and noted Fritz Pollard.” [29]

Once again, Naomi’s trailblazing history was underplayed in favor of her family relationships, but her life’s work amplifies the importance of acknowledging Black women working against the current.

Eight months later, on August 5, 1971, she died at her New York City home at 150 West End Avenue at the age of 88. Not many obituaries, especially those of Black women, make front page news, but Naomi’s did in The Sioux City Journal on August 13, 1971. [30] Her death was also reported in New York City’s Amsterdam News. [31]

In the obituaries, her profession is listed as “housewife,” indicating pride in her role alongside her husband Richard. But her presence in Sioux City, New York and Rogers Park reflects much more than her domestic role — she lived the life of an ally, an activist, a leader, a mother and a wife, all at once and in her own unique way.


  1. Quoted in Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement, by John M. Carroll, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  2. Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society website: “The Forgotten Pollards,” by Afia Ohemena, published 2014.
  3. “Naomi Willie Pollard Dobson: A Pioneering Black Librarian,” by LaVerne Gray, Syracuse University, published in Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2022, American Library Association’s History Round Table. This article provides a detailed summary of Naomi’s career as a teacher and librarian, as well as her life as a community activist after her marriage.
  4. United States Census, 1880, Mexico, Andrews County, Missouri, Enumeration District 6, page 30, Pollard Family.
  5. Interview with Luther J. Pollard, The Very Last Laugh, (parts 1 and 2), 1976. The William Franklin Grisham Collection, Chicago Film Archives.
  6. Vintage Chicago History article by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2024.
  7. United States Census, 1900, Chicago, IL, Enumeration District 777, sheet 11. Pollard at 4316 Ravenswood Park.
  8. Undated news article, unidentified newspaper: School Children of a Half-Century Ago, identified as the 5th and 6th graders in the Rogers Park School at Lunt and Damen, taken October 28, 1894. Naomi “Willie” Pollard is in the front row.
  9. “Finish Work at High Schools: Lake View,” Chicago Tribune June 26, 1901, page 6.
  10. Entrance Statistics Form, Northwestern University College of Liberal Arts, completed by Naomi Pollard, October 8, 1901.
  11. For more on the housing barriers for Northwestern students of color in the early 20th Century, see The Evanston Round Table, April 14th, 2023.
  12. Burghardt, DuBois William Edward, and Herbert Aptheker. The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques; 1906-1960. Monthly Review Pr., 1975.
  13. Naomi Pollard, “Even in Beggary,” Northwestern Magazine, March 1905; from Pollard Dobson’s Alumna file, Northwestern University.
  14. Northwestern Syllabus Yearbook 1904-05, Naomi Pollard, Class of 1905, page 170.
  15. Dobson, R. A., (Mrs.) Naomi Willie Pollard, Aluma file, in response to questions about personal and career activities since graduation.
  16. United States Census, 1910, Chicago, Enumeration District 1037, sheet 9, Pollard at 7017 North East Ravenswood Park.
  17. Chicago City Directory, 1917, page 1099, listing for John Pollard at 1928 West Lunt.
  18. Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Public Library (Chicago: Chicago Public Library, 1909–10), page 218.
  19. Wilberforce University Catalog, 1915-16 includes several entries for Naomi Pollard, including a professional resume of her qualifications as a librarian.
  20. Cook County Marriage Index record, Richard Dobson-Neomi (sic) Pollard, September 16, 1916, also reported in Sioux City Journal, September 17, 1916, page 36.
  21. Births, son to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Dobson, Sioux City Journal, June 29 1917, page 14.
  22. Two announcement items, Des Moines Bystander, September 28, 1917, page 2.
  23. World War I Draft Registration, Richard Allen Dobson, 1114 Center Street, filed September 1, 1918, Des Moines Local Board #1.
  24. United States Census, 1920, Sioux City, Iowa, Enumeration District 29, sheet 6A, recorded January 8, 1920, Dobson at 400 7th Street.
  25. “City to Observe Day of Prayer,” Sioux City Journal, March 2, 1924, page 19.
  26. “Sioux Cityan is Head of Colored Women of State”, Sioux City Journal, May 28, 1932, page 5.
  27. “City N.A.A.C.P. Chapter Selects Rabbi Gordon,” Sioux City Journal, December 19, 1952.
  28. “Church Dinner to Honor Couple,” Sioux City Journal, July 3, 1954, page 3.
  29. Betty Granger, “Conversation Piece,” Amsterdam News, January 23, 1971.
  30. “Co-Founder of NAACP Dies,” Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, IA), August 13, 1971.
  31. “West End Woman Dies Peacefully,” New York Amsterdam News, August 14, 1971, page 2.

About the Author: Hanna Houser

Hanna Houser, a 2024 student intern with RPWHS, is drawn to history because it helps interpret modern life in the context of what came before. Houser was a May, 2024 graduate of Loyola University majoring in Multimedia Journalism with a minor in Political Science. During her school years, she was heavily involved with The Loyola Phoenix, the campus newspaper. Houser first moved to Rogers Park for school and lived in the neighborhood for four years. Prior to moving to Rogers Park, she spent time living on both the east and west coasts. After graduation, she returned east to pursue a career in investigations at a financial investment firm.