For Black History Month 2020, I wrote a brief biography of noteworthy African-American mathematicians. This is not meant to be a canonical, prioritized, or exhaustive list, although many of these mathematicians are often on “best of” or “firsts” lists. There are many more Black mathematicians whose names deserve to be known, a list that grows daily. I did my best to be accurate, but there were times when sources gave conflicting information, and it’s possible I made errors of my own; if you see anything wrong, please let me know in the comments.
Benjamin Banneker (Feb 3)
David Blackwell, PhD (Feb 13)
Marjorie Lee Browne, PhD (Feb 20)
William W. Shieffelin Claytor, PhD (Feb 15)
Elbert Frank Cox, PhD (Feb 11)
Annie Easley (Feb 10)
Etta Zuber Falconer, PhD (Feb 8)
Thomas Fuller (Feb 25)
Gloria Ford Gilmer, PhD (Feb 26)
Evelyn Boyd Granville, PhD (Feb 18)
Euphemia Lofton Haynes, PhD (Feb 6)
Gloria Conyers Hewitt, PhD (Feb 28)
Rudy L. Horne, PhD (Feb 17)
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, PhD (Feb 27)
Katherine Johnson (Feb 2)
Angie Lena Turner King, PhD (Feb 22)
Gerald “Jerry” Anderson Lawson (Feb 29)
Vivienne Malone-Mayes, PhD (Feb 12)
Jami Valentine Miller, PhD (Feb 14)
Kelly Miller (Feb 1)
Carolyn Beatrice Parker, PhD (Feb 14)
Charles L. Reason (Feb 7)
Abdulalim Abdullah Shabazz, PhD (Feb 19)
Dolores Margaret Richard Spikes, PhD (Feb 24)
Clarence Francis Stephens, PhD (Feb 23)
Thyrsa Anne Frazier Svager, PhD (Feb 4)
Walter R. Talbot, PhD (Feb 21)
Dorothy Vaughan (Feb 16)
J. Ernest Wilkins, PhD (Feb 9)
Dudley W. Woodard, PhD (Feb 5)
NOTABLE ALLY: Lee Lorch
INFAMOUS RACIST: Robert Lee Moore
Feb 1: Kelly Miller
Kelly Miller (1863-1939) was the sixth child of a Black freeman and an enslaved woman. He attended Howard University, being the first Black person to attend a graduate program in Mathematics. He received an MA in Mathematics in 1901 and an LLD in 1903.
Miller was a polymath: He taught both mathematics and sociology, later switching to sociology exclusively. He was also vocal on the issue of racism in the United States, largely siding with Booker T. Washington’s position of accommodation but seeking a middle ground between that and W. E. B. DuBois’s radicalism.
He also published a rebuttal of Frederick L. Hoffman’s racist analysis that African people are genetically inferior. Miller’s rebuttal was based on a sociological analysis of census data.
The link below also contains an article from Miller on women’s suffrage that illustrates that, while he had progressive views on race and the equal abilities of Black people, his views on women were downright regressive. A potent reminder that everyone is complex.
I didn’t want to start (yesterday) with one of the headliners, but for the second day, I’ll go with someone I’m sure you’ve heard of. Katherine Johnson is best known because of the movie “Hidden Figures”.
Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. By age 19, she had earned a BS in Mathematics and French, and took a job teaching in a Black public school in West Virginia.
When West Virginia moved to integrate its graduate schools in 1939, she was one of three Black students selected by the President of West Virginia State College, an HBCU, to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. She didn’t complete her studies, however, opting to return to teaching public school.
In 1952, she and her husband moved to Newport News so she could pursue a job at NASA (then NACA)’s all-Black computing team. She began work at Langley in 1953.
Over the next decade, Johnson was given increasing responsibilities, leading to the events shown in “Hidden Figures”. At one point, John Glenn refused to accept an electronic computer’s analysis and insisted that Johnson specifically rerun the numbers manually. She did, they checked out, and the mission proceeded.
In 1986, she retired from Langley after 33 years. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. She passed away in 2020.
Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 in Maryland. Both of his parents were free, and so he was as well. He was largely self-educated, and was an accomplished surveyor and engineer.
His accomplishments included creating an irrigation system for his family farm and building a clock that ran for half a century after his death. He was interested in astronomy, and accurately forecast eclipses.
He assisted in the surveying of the city of Washington, although his tenure was short due to illness. He was also well known for his writing skills, including a successful almanac that was published from 1792 to 1797.
In addition to his engineering interests, he was vocal on not just abolition but racial equity, writing Thomas Jefferson in 1791. Included in this letter, he wrote, “I have long been convinced, that if your love for your Selves, and for those inesteemable laws which preserve to you the rights of human nature, was founded on Sincerity, you could not but be Solicitous, that every Individual of whatsoever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof.”
Banneker died in his sleep in 1806, at the age of 75.
Thyrsa Anne Frazier Svager was born in 1930; her father was a statistician, and her mother a speech professor at Central State University, an HBCU. She graduated from high school at 16, attending Antioch College before going on to Ohio State University. She was one of the first Black women to earn a PhD in mathematics.
At Antioch, she was one of only four Black students. One of her classmates, and friends, was Coretta Scott. She encouraged Coretta to marry Martin Luther King.
She was appointed chair of the CSU math department in 1967, and received tenure in 1970. She also worked for NASA and MIT, as well as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Texas Southern University. She wrote two books.
Her husband was Aleksandar Svager, a CSU physics professor and a Holocaust survivor. The two of them lived on a single income, using their other income to build a scholarship fund. After she died (in 1999), her husband set up the Thyrsa Frazier Svager Fund for Black women who major in mathematics.
Dudley W. Woodard was the second African-American to earn a PhD in Mathematics.
He was born in 1881 in Galveston, TX, and little is known about his childhood. Having earned his MS in 1907, he taught at Tuskegee Institute and Wilberforce College before taking a position at Howard University. He was Dean of Arts and Science for a decade. In 1928, he earned a PhD at University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Woodard established an MS program in Mathematics at Howard University, making it the pinnacle for studying mathematics at an HBCU. He mentored and supported a variety of up-and-coming Black mathematicians.
By general accounts, Woodard was quietly assertive, showing pride in his Blackness and ignoring many of the Jim Crow restrictions of his time. His was a passive activism of refusing to accept the limitations placed on him because of his skin color, and he used his academic position to help others up as well.
Dr. Woodard died in 1965 at the age of 83.
Many of the biographies I’m reading are parallel: Academic mathematicians earning PhDs and then spending their career doing obscure things in universities.
Not so for Euphemia Lofton Haynes.
Born in 1890, Haynes’s parents were a prominent Black dentist who actively supported other Black businesses and a mother who was active in the Catholic church.
Haynes earned a Master’s in Education in 1930. Then, in 1943, Haynes became the first African American woman to be awarded a PhD in Mathematics.
Her professional life was balanced between her college positions training other teachers and her public school teaching. She taught mathematics and English in Black high schools in Washington, DC.
After half a century as an educator, she retired and became active in Catholic charities, being awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice by the Catholic Church.
She died in 1980 at the age of 89, having devoted her life to the service of others.
Reason was born in 1818 in New York City. His parents were Haitian immigrants, and emphasized the importance of education.
Reason was a mere 14 when he began teaching mathematics professionally. While teaching, he hired tutors to continue his own education.
In 1849, he became the first African American to hold a professorship at a predominantly White American college. He taught belle lettres, three languages, and mathematics at the New York Central College in McGrawville.
Three years later, he left that post to become Principal of Philadelphia’s Institute of Colored Youth, a Quaker institution. He continued teaching and administrating at various city schools for several decades, eventually being honored for fifty years of service in education.
Reason was active throughout his life on the issue of racial equality. He believed that training in industrial arts would be pivotal in the freedom of Black people in the United States, writing about his hope that free Blacks would become “self-providing artizans vindicating their people from the never-ceasing charge of a fitness for servile positions.”
He played a prominent role in the Negro Convention Movement in New York. In 1873, he was successful in leading the fight to desegregate New York’s public schools.
He died in 1893 in New York City.
Falconer was born in Mississippi in 1933. She excelled in academics from an early age, graduating from high school at age 15 and from college (summa cum laude) at age 19.
She taught predominantly at the college level, but did spend a few years teaching high school.
As she was completing her PhD in Mathematics at Emory (earned in 1969), she took a position at Spelman College, where she spent much of her career. In addition to teaching mathematics there, she built departments in chemistry and computer science.
One of her main interests was increasing the presence of women in STEM. In 1995, she said, “My entire career has been devoted to increasing the number of African American women in mathematics and mathematics-related careers.” While she was at Spelman, the number of women in mathematics and science tripled to 40%.
She retired in 2002, and passed away the same year.
J. Ernest Wilkins was born in Chicago in 1933; his mother was a school teacher and his father was a lawyer who later worked in the Eisenhower Administration.
At 13, Wilkins entered the University of Chicago, one of the youngest people to ever do so. At 17, he had a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics; by 19, he had earned a PhD.
He took a job teaching at the Tuskegee Institute. However, in 1944, as with many brilliant mathematicians and scientists, he joined the University of Chicago Met Lab.
There, he worked with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi, among others, to develop ways of producing fissionable nuclear materials.
This work was part of the Manhattan Project, but as with many of his cohort, Wilkins was apparently unaware until too late that his research was being used to develop nuclear bombs. He would sign Leo Szilard’s petition to Harry S Truman against the use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese.
Later that year, his team was moved south. Because of Jim Crow laws, he was not legally allowed to remain with them, and he got a position researching alongside Eugene Wigner on the feasibility of nuclear reactors.
After the end of the war, Wilkins split his academic time between finding peaceful uses of nuclear fission and applications of mathematics in creating and perfecting lenses for various applications.
He retired in 2003 and passed away in 2011.
Annie Easley was born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama. She was raised by a single mother, and initially planned to go to school for pharmacy.
As a young voter, she used her intelligence to help others overcome the Jim Crow era voting restrictions. Then, newly married, she moved with her husband to Cleveland, Ohio.
Because the only local pharmacy school had recently closed, she looked around for other opportunities. She read about twin sisters working for NACA as “computers,” and she decided to pursue that option.
She got a job at NACA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. There, she found her home, flourishing as a computer. As machines became more powerful, she learned computer programming.
She stayed at NASA for over three decades, successfully transitioning to a full-blown computer programmer. Her work on the Centaur rocket was particularly noteworthy.
While other famous mathematicians become interested in a young age, Easley’s is a story of someone who found their niche eventually rather than right away. But, nonetheless, she made significant contributions and proved to be an inspiration for others.
She was concerned about much of the racism that she faced early on at NASA, and took on the additional role of equal employment opportunity (EEO) counselor.
Easley retired in 1989, continuing to have a role even in her retirement. She passed away in 2011.
Elbert Frank Cox was born in 1895 in Evansville, Indiana. While his neighborhood was racially mixed, he attended the segregated schools that were common across the country in that era. His father, a graduate of Evansville College and an alumnus of Indiana University, was a school principal, and this devotion to education carried through to the Cox children.
Cox received an Associate Degree from Indiana University in 1917; the transcript was stamped with the word “Colored”. After serving in the US Army during World War I, Cox briefly taught high school mathematics and continued his college education.
In 1925, Cox earned a PhD in Mathematics from Cornell University, the first African-American in the world to receive this degree. As a sobering reminder of the reality of the era, there were fewer mathematics PhDs awarded in the United States in 1925 than there were Black people lynched (28 to 35).
In 1927, he married Beulah Kaufman, a school teacher. They had three children.
Cox taught most of his career at Howard University, teaching there for three decades. While many other Black academics of his era spent time focused on racial equity issues, he seems to have been focused on pursuing his academic goals despite the obstacles that White supremacy had put in his way.
He died in 1969, eight years after his retirement from Howard. In 1990, the National Association of Mathematicians established the Cox-Talbot Lecture, an annual lecture at their annual banquet.
Vivienne Malone-Mayes was born in Waco, Texas, in 1932. Both of her parents were teachers, and her father also worked for the Urban Renewal Agency.
She graduated from high school in 1948, and enrolled in Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville. She was intending to pursue medicine, but her boyfriend, James Jeffries Mayes, was studying dentistry and was concerned that two doctors in the household might be too much.
Inspired by her classes at Fisk with Evelyn Boyd Granville, Malone-Mayes chose to major in mathematics. She graduated in 1952, then applied to Baylor for graduate studies. They rejected her, making it a point in the letter to spell out their policy against accepting Black students.
Instead, she applied to University of Texas, which was currently being required to integrate their student body. She was accepted, and later reflected that Baylor’s rejection may have been for the best, since U-T offered a PhD and Baylor didn’t.
However, in graduate school, she was persistently reminded of her race. One professor (R. L. Moore) refused to let her enroll in his classes. The common hangout place for mathematics graduate students, Hilsberg’s cafe, had a strict policy against Black patrons. Since she was the only Black woman in her courses, her peers avoided her, and she was turned down for a graduate assistant position that she was exceedingly qualified for.
Apparently impressed by her grace under these conditions, and irritated by civil rights activists, one professor suggested that racial tensions would improve if more Black people acted like her. She replied: “If it hadn’t been for those hell-raisers out there, you wouldn’t even know me.”
About the pressures to succeed, and how she knew she was constantly representing her race, she later reflected, “When I made a low grade, I felt I’d let down 11 million people. That’s a heavy burden. Every professor stereotyped blacks by my performance. You felt like you had no choice but to excel.”
While Baylor had rejected her as a student, they hired her as a professor. Since she was the first Black faculty member at Baylor, her treatment was monitored by the Federal government.
Dr. Malone-Mayes passed away in 1995, having lived through a dramatic change in civil rights in this country and helping pave the way for future Black women in mathematics.
Sources: U of Buffalo, St. Andrews College
List of mathematicians
Feb 13: David Blackwell
In mathematical circles, David Blackwell is considered one of the most famous African-American mathematicians, if not THE most famous.
Blackwell was born in 1919 in Centralia, Illinois. His family expected hard work. He attended a mixed race school in an era when school segregation was still common. While he acknowledged that Southern Illinois was fairly racist, “I was not even aware of these problems — I had no sense of being discriminated against.”
He received all of his degrees from the University of Illinois, earning his PhD in 1941. He taught at a variety of colleges, including a decade at Howard University and over a decade at the University of California at Berkeley.
He was a member of a wide variety of prestigious professional organizations, and had leadership positions in the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the American Statistical Association, the International Statistical Institute, and the American Mathematical Society.
Blackwell was the first African-American named to the National Academy of Sciences (1955), and in 1979, he won the John von Neumann Theory Prize.
When asked what area represented his most significant area of research, he said, “Basically, I’m not interested in doing research and I never have been … I’m interested in understanding, which is quite a different thing.”
Dr. Blackwell passed away in 2010.
Sources: U of Illinois, U of Buffalo, MAA
List of mathematicians
Feb 14: Carolyn Beatrice Parker
Carolyn Beatrice Parker was born in Florida in 1917. Her aunt, Joan Murrel Owens, was one of the first African-American women to receive a PhD in geology.
Parker was one of six children, all of whom had graduate degrees, five of them in STEM fields.
Following her Bachelor’s degree (from Fisk University), she taught public school in Florida and Virginia. She then earned her first Master’s degree, in mathematics, from the University of Michigan in 1941.
She then turned her studies toward Physics, studying at Ohio State University and later earning a Master’s degree from MIT in 1951, becoming the first known African-American woman to receive a postgraduate degree in Physics.
Parker also worked on the Dayton Project, part of the Manhattan Project, from 1943 to 1947. This work included enriching polonium, which sadly led to her developing leukemia. While she finished her PhD research, she was too ill to defend it.
She died in 1966 at the age of 48.
Sources: NSBP, Wikipedia
List of mathematicians
VALENTINE’S DAY SPECIAL! Feb 14: Jami Valentine Miller
Dr. Jami Valentine Miller received her doctorate in 2007, the first PhD awarded in Physics to an African-American woman by John Hopkins University.
She is an active speaker, encouraging Black girls to pursue STEM careers. She also maintains a website dedicated to African-American women in physics, AAWiP.com.
Read more about her at…
Sources: Personal site, SPS Observer, Physics Today
List of mathematicians
Feb 15: William W. Shieffelin Claytor
William W. Shieffelin Claytor was born in Virginia in 1908. He was educated in Washington, DC, public schools, and then attended Howard University.
He was mentored at Howard by Elbert Cox and Dudley Woodard, the first and second African-American men to earn PhDs in Mathematics. Claytor earned his own PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (Woodard’s alma mater), making his the third.
Claytor’s 1934 paper in Annals of Mathematics, based on his PhD research, was the first article published by an African-American mathematician in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
He taught at West Virginia State College, an HBCU, for several years. One of his students there was Katherine Johnson. He received a fellowship to the University of Michigan, where he studied for several years but was barred from attending research seminars.
During this time, he also presented at the American Mathematical Society, but he was not allowed to stay at the hotel, and racists like R. L. Moore (the most influential mind in topology) discouraged his involvement. As a result, he largely abandoned AMS meetings.
During the war, Claytor supported the effort through education in Army schools. After the war, he received a position at Howard University, working under David Blackwell.
Dr. Claytor retired from Howard in 1965, and passed away in 1967. In 1980, the National Association of Mathematicians instituted a lecture in his honor.
Sources: U of Buffalo, MAA, Wikipedia
List of mathematicians
Feb 16: Dorothy Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri (that’s my birthplace, too!). As a child, she also lived in West Virginia; after high school, she attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private HBCU in the United States. There, she received a mathematics degree (1929).
Prior to and during World War II, Vaughan taught public school. As the war wound down, though, she was concerned that she might lose her position, and sought a position with NACA.
In the wake of FDR’s executive order requiring an end to discrimination in the hiring practices of Federal agencies, and due to the increased demand for manual computations, Vaughan found work with the West Area Computing Unit, an all-Black group of women mathematicians.
Despite Roosevelt’s order, Jim Crow laws still required Black and White employees to work separately, leading to some of the details fictionalized in “Hidden Figures”. In 1949, though, Vaughan was promoted to section head for West Computers, the first Black person with that title. This allowed her to work with other section heads, leading to greater visibility of a Black “computer”.
For the next decade, Vaughan was section head of West Computers at NACA. At that point, NACA became NASA, and electronic computers became increasingly powerful. As a result, Vaughan learned FORTRAN and became a programmer.
Dorothy Vaughan retired in 1971, having established herself as a mentor to many other Black mathematicians and programmers. She passed away in 2008, and was one of the three most featured Black “computers” in the 2016 movie and book, “Hidden Figures”.
Sources: NASA, Britannica
List of mathematicians
Feb 17: Rudy L. Horne
Like me, Rudy L. Horne was born in 1968. His parents were a worker at a paint factory and a part-time daycare worker. He grew up in the South Side of Chicago.
He entered college as an engineering and physics major at the University of Oklahoma before switching to physics and mathematics.
Horne completed MAs in physics (’94) and mathematics (’96) at the University of Colorado Boulder. He also received his PhD there in 2001.
He worked at several colleges before finding a placement at Morehouse in 2010, where he worked until his untimely death in 2017.
Unlike most of the other people being featured this month, Horne’s personal and professional life don’t particularly stand out, and that’s a good thing. Whereas in previous generations, when African-Americans had to fight against legal obstacles, those struggles have helped pave the way for Black people to simply live their lives. Society is struggling to catch up to the law, sadly.
Horne did have a claim to fame outside his wonderfully low-key but beloved work as a professor and researcher: He was the mathematics consultant for the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”. In one scene, it is his writing covering Katherine Johnson’s chalkboard.
In an obituary, Chris Jones wrote of Dr. Horne: “You stood as a shining beacon as to what was possible for young African-American mathematicians. You inspired by example, by leadership and by hard work.”
Here’s a video of Dr. Horne talking about himself and his experience on “Hidden Figures”.
Sources: DSWeb, Mathematically Gifted and Black, Wikipedia
List of mathematicians
Feb 18: Evelyn Boyd Granville
Evelyn Boyd Granville was born in 1924 in Washington, DC, where she was raised by her mother and her aunt, who were both government employees. She was educated in the segregated public schools, which she felt “was in no way an inferior school system”.
While she was aware of the limitations that segregation placed on Blacks in the United States, she learned to focus on the positive stories; in 1989, she reflected: “we heard about and read about individuals whose achievements were contributing to the good of all people. These individuals, men and women, served as our role models; we looked up to them and we set out goals to be like them. We accepted education as the means to rise above the limitations that a prejudiced society endeavored to place upon us.”
Granville attended Smith College as an undergraduate before earning her PhD in Mathematics from Yale. The same year (1949), Marjorie Lee Browne received a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, making them the second and third Black women to receive that degree in the United States.
One of her early professorships involved two years at Fisk University, where her students included Vivienne Malone Mayes and Etta Zuber Falconer, two Black women who also later earned their PhDs in Mathematics.
She spent over a decade outside of academia, working as a mathematician and computer programmer for the US Government, including a stint at NASA during the Space Race.
In 1967, Granville returned to education, taking a position at California State University, Los Angeles. She was involved in elementary teacher education and co-authored a textbook on “New Math” for teacher candidates.
In her retirement, she briefly taught computer programming to eighth graders, but realized that secondary public school teaching and college teaching were not the same.
She taught college a few more years during her retirement. She is currently 95.
Abdulalim Abdullah Shabazz was born Lonnie Cross in Alabama in 1927, the fourth of eleven children. His father was a coal miner. He graduated high school in 1945 and started at Lincoln University, an HBCU, before he was drafted into World War II.
Shabazz was a polyglot. Returning to Lincoln, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics, with minors in French and physics, in 1949. Two years later, he had a Master’s degree in mathematics (philosophy minor) from MIT.
He worked as an Assistant Research Mathematician at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, and then earned a PhD from Cornell in 1955.
Shabazz began his teaching career at Tuskegee Institute, then Atlanta University (later Clark University). However, with the political upheaval of the early 1960s, with the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, he became interested in the Nation of Islam.
By 1963, he left secular education and became very active with his newfound faith. He changed his name, rising through the ranks until he was Imam for the Detroit mosque, overseeing the Midwest.
Reflecting on his rising power and concerned about his safety following the assassination of Malcolm X, Shabazz left the US church and spent several years in Saudi Arabia.
In 1986, nearly a quarter century after he left it, he returned to Clark University, reflecting on the way in which the University was now using remedial courses to keep students stuck in a loop: “As a result of that remediation, the pipelines to higher mathematics, mathematics based sciences, engineering and the technologies were cluttered and almost completely plugged.”
He also criticized a public education system that was designed to maintain the White Supremacist model: “The proper education of African Americans upsets this social stratification, because we can leave the salt mines today and go into the upper echelons of society tomorrow. Those in control of the system traditionally prepare children of the tycoons to go to the Harvards and the Yales.”
Dr. Shabazz retired in 2000, and received a National Mentor Award from President Clinton the same year. He passed away in 2014, receiving a eulogy from Louis Farrakan.
Marjorie Lee Browne was born in Tennessee in 1914. Her mother died when she was two years old, and she was raised by her father, a postal clerk with an interest in numbers, and her step-mother, a school teacher.
Browne’s father, Lawrence Johnson Lee, was concerned about making sure his children got a solid education, particularly in light of the racial issues of the time and area of the country. He sent Browne to a private school for Black students.
She went on to graduate from Howard University in 1935, following that with a Master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan (1939). This made her one of only a small handful of Black women to have a graduate degree in Mathematics prior to World War II.
With her Master’s degree, she taught at several colleges. After the War, she completed her PhD at the University of Michigan in 1949, making her the third Black woman to earn that degree in the United States.
While many other Black women mathematicians of the Post-War era got pulled into the Space Race, Browne’s interests remained in pure mathematics, and she continued her research through a variety of fellowships and as a professor.
Dr. Browne died in 1979, shortly after her retirement and still working on several articles.
Walter R. Talbot was born in 1909, the fifth child of Jerry and Carrie Talbot. His father worked as a construction foreman, and the family lived in a rented home in Pittsburgh. His parents and grandparents “had attained their education in spite of limited opportunities for formal schooling”.
He recalled that his high school was regarded as “one of the better ‘academic’ ones,” but it only offered two years of mathematics. As an undergraduate, he attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Bachelor’s in Mathematics and Physics (1931).
In 1935, he became the fourth Black person to earn a PhD in Mathematics in the United States, also from the University of Pittsburgh.
Thus he entered academic life as a professor, first at Lincoln University in Missouri and then at Morgan State University, both HBCUs.
However, as with his Black contemporaries, he found that racism prevented him from being properly recognized among the national associations. He wrote, “When I entered the college teaching scene, it was 1934… It was 35 years later before I had a chance to start existing in the national activities of the mathematical bodies.”
At one point, he wrote about William W. Schieffelin Claytor, who had been barred from staying at the hotel when he attended a conference. “I believe that incident in discrimination was one of the main chilling, if not killing, points in the research career of a brilliant mathematician.”
Talbot’s reflections on both Claytor’s treatment and that of Herman Branson, a promising medical student who faced open racism at the University of Pittsburgh, reminds us of the talent that has been lost because of racist barriers.
Dr. Talbot died in 1977. The next year, the National Association of Mathematics created the Cox-Talbot Lecture, named for him and Elbert Frank Cox.
Angie Lena Turner King: Hilda Bastian writes, “If the measure of achievement is a combination of your legacy and how far you come from where you started, moderated by the odds stacked against you, then one of the greatest African-American achievers in STEM is Angie Turner King.”
She was born in West Virginia’s coal country in 1905, the grandchild of enslaved persons. Her mother died when she was eight, and her father not long after. She was raised first by a grandmother who degraded her for her dark skin.
Her fortunes changed when she later moved in with a grandfather, who pushed her into school. She graduated from high school at the age of 14.
She took odd jobs while in college, first attending Bluefield Colored Institute for teacher training, then transferring to West Virginia State, graduating with a degree in mathematics and chemistry in 1927.
Dr. King became a teacher while taking graduate courses in chemistry at Cornell University. In 1933, she earned a Master’s in Chemistry; in 1955, she earned a PhD in Mathematics Education.
She taught her entire career at West Virginia State University; her students included Katherine Johnson, who called her “a wonderful teacher — bright, caring, and very rigorous”, and Margaret Collins.
Aaron Gustafson writes, “She didn’t invent some groundbreaking technology we can’t live without. She didn’t cure a horrible disease. She didn’t do one specific thing we should recognize her for. She did many things. She taught. She mentored. She nurtured. She put her energy into her students and gave them the tools they needed to be successful. She put others before herself and that’s damn admirable.”
Sources: Aaron Gustafson, BlackPast, PLOS, Wikipedia
List of mathematicians
Feb 23: Clarence Francis Stephens
Clarence Francis Stephens was born in Georgia in 1917, the fifth of six children. He and his siblings were orphaned when he was eight, and went to live with a grandmother.
He and both of his brothers majored in mathematics at Johnson C. Smith University, in North Carolina. After graduating in 1938, Stephens went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan. In 1943, he earned his PhD there.
During the war, he served as a Teaching Specialist in the US Navy. In 1946, he returned to academic life. He accepted a position at Morgan State University, in part so that he could do research at nearby John Hopkins University.
At Morgan, he was disturbed by the poor quality of mathematics education and decided to focus on Master Teaching instead of research.
In 1962, Stephens moved from Morgan to SUNY at Geneso, later transferring to Potsdam. His teaching method became famous, second only to R. L. Moore (whose White Supremacist attitudes created obstacles for Black mathematicians).
His teaching technique became called the Morgan-Potsdam Model. As a young child, he learned mathematics without help from his teachers, and it was that gift of seeing the art and beauty of mathematics that shaped his teaching model. In 1997, he wrote, “More than fifty years ago I came to the conclusion that every college student who desired to learn mathematics could do so. I spent my entire professional life believing that this was the case.”
Dr. Stephens retired in 1987, and passed away in 2018.
Dolores Margaret Richard Spikes was born in 1936 in Baton Rouge. She attended both parochial and public schools. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics from Southern University in 1957 and a Master’s Degree in Mathematics from the University of Illinois a year later.
She returned to Louisiana, first taking a position teaching science in public school before joining the faculty at Southern University in the Mathematics department.
Over the years that followed, she worked her way up the ranks at Southern University while completing her PhD at Louisiana State University (1971).
During the 1980s, her career course took an administrative turn, and in 1988, she became President of the Southern University and A&M College System.
Her position garnered her national attention: In 1989, she earned the Thurgood Marshall Educational Achievement Award, while in 1990, Ebony Magazine named her one of the twenty most influential Black women in America. In 1994, she joined President Clinton’s board of advisors on HBCUs.
She later served as the President of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Of her alma mater, she later said, “”Southern (University) represents hope. It represents a way to open the doors of America to countless young people who would otherwise be shut out.”
Dr. Spikes passed away in 2015.
Thomas Fuller was born in western Africa around 1710. At the age of 14, he was brought forcibly to the United States as part of the slave trade, and was eventually forced by law to work for the Cox family of Virginia.
He became famous for his rapid mental calculation skills. At the time, his skills caused one of two interpretations. Abolitionists held him up as evidence that Africans were on an intellectual par with Europeans, while others insisted he was an idiot savant.
Later historians, in particular E. W. Scripture (writing in 1891 for the American Journal of Psychology), not only supported the abolitionist view, but went farther to suggest that Fuller’s skills were evidence of a robust mathematical education program taking place in western Africa.
Because Fuller was kidnapped as a teenager, he had had the opportunity to learn mathematics of the sort that was employed in commerce (including, sadly, the slave trade).
As it was, his mathematics skills were treated like a carnival sideshow, with an account of William Hartshorne and Samuel Coates “calling for him” when he was 70 so they could observe his abilities and ask him questions that amounted to mathematical party tricks.
He died at the apparent age of 80, having never been given the opportunity to learn to read and write. He is one of so many great minds that were lost by our barbaric commitment to slavery.
Gloria Ford Gilmer was born in Baltimore. She received her Bachelor’s in Mathematics from Morgan State University and her Master’s in Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania.
While she was a student at Morgan, she co-authored two articles with Professor Luna Mishoe; when these were published in 1956, Gilmer became the first African-American woman to receive author credit in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
After years of teaching at various of HBCUs and public schools, as well as raising a family, she returned to formal studies and completed a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Marquette University in 1978.
She became extremely interested in the new field of ethnomathematics, a “term coined by Ubiratan D’Ambrosio to describe the mathematical practices of identifiable cultural groups” (U of Buffalo). She co-founded the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics.
In 1998, as part of her research on ethnomathematics, she explored mathematical patterns in African American hairstyles. Her key objective was to answer the question: “What can the hair braiding enterprise contribute to mathematics education and conversely what can mathematics education contribute to the hair braiding enterprise?” Inspired by this work, others have looked for similar patterns in hair weaving in Africa.
Dr. Gilmer has also written on the importance of making sure mathematics curricula are available to all students, not just traditionally dominant cultures. She explores questions such as, “What are the consequences of mathematics learning for children whose cultural experiences are being ignored?”
Freeman A. Hrabowski III was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950. Both of his parents were mathematics teachers at some point during his childhood. He says he was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class household with two parents who loved reading and mathematics.
As a pre-teen, he spent five days in jail for participating in the Children’s Crusade for civil rights. His treatment during those five days, including being spat upon by Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, imprisoned with adult criminals, and later debriefing with Dr. Martin Luther King, set him on a lifelong path of commitment towards racial equity and justice.
He earned his Masters in Mathematics and his PhD in Education Administration and Statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
Since 1992, he has been President of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His research has consistently focused on increasing minority involvement in mathematics and science. He shared some of his thoughts in a <a href=”https://www.ted.com/talks/freeman_hrabowski_4_pillars_of_college_success_in_science”>Ted Talk</a>.
In 2008, he was named one of America’s Best Leaders by “U.S. News & World Report.” In 2012, he chaired President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Throughout his decades in education, he has received numerous other awards and honors.
In 2015, Dr. Hrabowski wrote a memoir entitled, “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement.”
Gloria Conyers Hewitt was born in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1935. Of her parents, she said, “My parents believed that education was the only avenue through which an African American man or woman could better them selves. Therefore, they encouraged all of their children to attend college.”
She entered Fisk University in 1952 with the intent to be a nurse. However, Lee Lorch, a professor at Fisk, saw her promise as a mathematician and encouraged her to take calculus.
She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Fisk University, and made plans to become a high school teacher. However, Lorch encouraged her to go further. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Washington in 1960, and got a position as an assistant professor at the University of Montana in Missoula while working on her doctorate.
She was awarded her doctorate in 1962 (the seventh Black woman with a PhD in mathematics), and stayed at the University of Montana. She eventually became the chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, the first Black woman to chair any department at that university.
From 1964 to 1972, Dr. Hewitt was a visiting lecturer for the Mathematical Association of America. She served on the executive council for the mathematical honor society, Pi Mu Epsilon, from 1972 to 1975. She has also worked on the exam writing team for the GRE and as a reader and curriculum writer for the AP Calculus exam.
Dr. Hewitt retired in 1999.
Gerald “Jerry” Anderson Lawson was born in 1940 in Brooklyn. His blue collar parents encouraged his intellectual pursuits. He was inspired by George Washington Carver, among others.
As a teen, he tinkered with ham radio and made money repairing TVs and other electronics. After high school, he took classes at Queens College and City College, but didn’t receive a college degree.
Instead, he got interested in the exploding computer industry, joining Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, where he met both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
He developed an early arcade game, a few months after Pong’s debut. In 1976, he was recruited to Fairchild Semiconductor to work on a new home gaming system, The Fairchild Channel F.
He is generally credited with the major innovation that would change the video game industry: The ability to store games on removable cartridges, which would allow consumers to buy a single piece of hardware and swap out games on demand. His invention even attracted the attention of the FCC, which had been working on similar technology.
This makes Lawson the first noteworthy Black person in the computer industry. In an interview, he noted the immense pressure he carried as a result. He actively encouraged other Black people to explore STEM careers.
Lawson passed away in 2011, at the age of 70.
Lee Lorch was born in New York in 1915. Lorch earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1941. After serving in the war, in 1946, he became a mathematics professor at City College in New York.
He led the effort to desegregate the Stuyvesant Town housing development, which was Whites only when his family moved into it. These efforts led to his being denied promotion at City College in 1949, and he was evicted when he offered his apartment to a Black family. However, after a lawsuit, the Black family was allowed to stay in the development.
In 1952, he transferred to Fisk University, an HBCU. His students included the first three African-Americans to earn PhDs in Mathematics. In 1955, however, he lost his position when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
He found work at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, but he again lost his position when his wife comforted Black students during the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
They relocated to Canada, where he taught from 1959 to 1985. Dr. Lorch passed away in 2014.
Repeatedly, Lee and Grace Lorch put their own safety and livelihood on the line for the cause of racial equity.
One name has appeared in several of the biographies I’ve been reading: Robert Lee Moore. Moore’s father was of New England ancestry but fought for the Confederacy. Moore himself was a highly regarded mathematician, at one point the most famous and influential topologist in the world.
He was also an unrepentant racist, either refusing Black students outright or allowing them to attend but giving them a maximum of a C. Moore believed in scientific racism, which argues that there are biologically distinct races of humanity, and that the Caucasian race is inherently more intelligent than the others.
Moore has a building named after him on the University of Texas – Austin campus, and reports of his racism are typically downplayed, despite the power he had in academics and the way in which he consistently wielded it to oppress Black students.
Shame on you, Dr. Moore. Shame indeed.