Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS Absolutely Maybe

Black History Month: Mathematicians’ Powerful Stories


Mathematical drawing on blackboard


It was a turning point. The previous year, the US Civil Rights Act had passed. On 26 January 1969 in New Orleans, 17 African-American mathematicians gathered at the annual national mathematical meeting. They wanted to join forces to promote mathematics in their communities, and to improve excellence and opportunities for scholars in mathematical science. One of them, Johnny Houston, later wrote:

This force would advocate inclusion and not exclusion. This force would “sit around” the conference tables and the banquet tables of the mathematical sciences community, refusing to become isolated from the mainstream. This force would advocate conflict resolution and human/cultural problem-solving for the common good of the community of scholars.

It sure did! The organization they formed – the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) – is a vibrant grassroots community that has also been an effective force at the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) [PDF]. Now, they’re in the middle of a “Golden Anniversary” campaign to build an endowment fund for their 50th birthday in 2019.

There is still such a steep climb ahead: around 4-6% of mathematics/statistics majors have been African Americans recently – compare that to 14% of the population. And the ranks have been historically thin higher up:

According to JBHE research, as late as 1999 there were only four blacks teaching mathematics among the more than 900 faculty members of the mathematics departments of the nation’s 25 highest-ranked universities.

Still, in absolute numbers there is an amazing and rich history of extraordinary achievement. And the community has put in a lot effort to unearth and capture it. Scott Williams is the mathematics professor behind the website, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora (MAD). It had nearly 5 million visitors in the 10 years after he started it in 1997.

Williams said in his Cox Lecture that the project was founded in part by frustration at how little attention the inspiring heritage of mathematicians get, even in Black History Month:

…what about the Ghanaian ex-slave Anton Amo, the first (1730) Black man to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy (he taught mathematics)? What about Charles Reason, the first (1849) African American professor at a major college (he taught mathematics)? What about Kelly Miller, the first (1887) African American Mathematics graduate student? What about the individual after which this lecture was named, Elbert Cox, the first (1925) African American Mathematics PhD? The accomplishments of the aforementioned were during the time of slavery or during the height of lynching, and we should be familiar with them.


Photo of sculpture of Kelly Miller
Kelly Miller, bust by May Howard Jackson, photographer unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


Hidden Figures was another window into an astonishing history that can inspire and teach so much. By re-setting how we see the past, our perspective on today changes, too.


Photo at conference
Dawn Lott-Crumpler, Tasha Inniss, Darryl Corey, Flory Holmes, Willette Johnson at the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS), Berkeley, June 1995: photo by Lenore Blum, via Wikimedia Commons


I’ve been digging out photos, and life stories, and PhDs, of African-American mathematicians for a year now – to help it grow in another venue where many could encounter it: Wikipedia. It’s under construction, but I’ve posted today, squeaking in on the last day of Black History Month.

It’s worth scrolling all the way through the page here, even if you don’t have time to dip into much. I think it leaves an important impression.


Katherine Johnson watching the Hidden Figures premiere in 2016, photo NASA/Aubrey Gemignani via Wikimedia Commons


What’s in there? Dissertation details for over 150 African Americans who gained a doctoral degree in mathematics or mathematics education in an American university, up to 1975. Including Socrates Walter Saunders, who earned one of each (in 1942 and 1962)! They are in sortable tables, so you can order them by gender or by academic institution.

There are links to over 60 Wikipedia bios, bunches of photos, and bullet points for landmarks. There’s the early stages of a list of books – turns out there are lots!

If you want to pitch in, there’s no end of things to do, big or little. You’ll see some gaps for titles of dissertations – if you can track any down, that would be great. (If you don’t edit Wikipedia and you find one, or a missing PhD, let me know in the comments below or via Twitter and I’ll add it.)

If you would like to start a Wikipedia article for someone – even a little one helps – you’ll be able to find lots of amazing people here! In these lives, so much of life unfolds. Take Frank James – one of the people whose dissertation title from 1973 is still missing (New York University). When he was 19, he was the co-organizer of one of the early student sit-ins at a Woolworths – this one in Little Rock Arkansas, just a few years after the famous crisis when the “Little Rock Nine” integrated the High School.


Photo of troops escorting children into school
101st Airborne Division of the US Army escorting the “Little Rock Nine” children into high school in 1957, photo US Army via Wikimedia Commons


This is the amazing Vivienne Malone-Mayes:


Photo of Vivienne Malone-Mayes
Vivienne Malone-Mayes (PhD 1966), one of the 17 mathematicians at the 1969 NAM founding meeting (the rest are listed below), photographer unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


Malone-Mayes is one of the women who crosses over into this other project this month: a Twitter thread (with blog post) of 28 African-American women in science/STEM. Happy scrolling!




Photo of chemistry lab at Howard University


See also:

Black History Month: Chemists’ Powerful Stories and the Sociologist Who Studied Them


All this blog’s Black History Month posts


The blackboard image at the top of this post is my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). It pays homage to mathematician and educator William Schieffelin Claytor, based on work he published in 1937 in the Annals of Mathematics, “Peanian continua not embeddable in a spherical surface”.

I am grateful to Willie Pearson, Raymond Johnson, Lenore Blum, and Johnny Houston for their great generosity and support.

The 17 mathematicians at the meeting to found NAM in 1969:

  1. James A. Donaldson
  2. Samuel Douglas
  3. Henry Eldridge
  4. Thyrsa Frazier
  5. Richard Griego
  6. Johnny L. Houston
  7. Curtis Jefferson
  8. Vivienne Malone-Mayes
  9. Theodore Portis
  10. Arbeligic Rodriquez
  11. Charles Smith
  12. Robert Smith
  13. Beauregard Stubblefield
  14. Henry Taggert
  15. Walter Talbot
  16. Harriet Walton
  17. Scott Williams


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



  1. Fantastic Hilda

    It is timely that you are doing this while some of the worthy stories can be told now before they pass

    Excellent research and inspiring stories

    A credit to you

  2. Pure fire! I would only add to do some more research and highlight some more hidden figures from the WWII area specifically in Office of Naval Research with some pretty brilliant ORAs that helped us outsmart the Germans and the Japanese…not all your most brilliant people were PhDs….some pretty smart folks who did some amazing things with a BS or MS in Mathematics, Operations Research, or COMPSCI.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Back to top