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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the amazing Vivienne Malone-Mayes:
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!
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:
- James A. Donaldson
- Samuel Douglas
- Henry Eldridge
- Thyrsa Frazier
- Richard Griego
- Johnny L. Houston
- Curtis Jefferson
- Vivienne Malone-Mayes
- Theodore Portis
- Arbeligic Rodriquez
- Charles Smith
- Robert Smith
- Beauregard Stubblefield
- Henry Taggert
- Walter Talbot
- Harriet Walton
- 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.