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Stories of African-American STEM Societies: Part 2 — From Psychologists to Mathematicians

 

Photo of participants talking on the stairs at a CAARMS conference
At the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS) in Berkeley, 1995 (Lenore Blum, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

After the slow first wave of African-American STEM societies from 1895 to 1947 (part 1), a new wave swept in at the end of the 1960s. So there have been a few golden jubilees, and more coming.

The new organizations in the ’60s and early ’70s were fueled by the energy of the Black Power, student, and civil rights movements in a tumultuous time for society and universities. The organizations they created, in turn, empowered them, changing their professions, and sometimes challenging knowledge and how their disciplines work in profound ways as well.

 

6. Psychologists

 

Let’s listen to the Association of Black Psychologists’ (ABPsi) first woman president (1976-1977), Ruth E.G. King, tell of the first of the new ’60s groups, on its 10th anniversary:

Back in September of ’68, the assassinations of Kennedy and King had occurred, cities had burned, students were protesting and Black was in vogue! This was the tenor of the times when Black Psychologists arrived in San Francisco, ready to participate in; be part of; and contribute to the proceedings of the 76th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association…

 

Photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith black power salute at 1968 Olympics
1968 Black Power – Carlos and Smith Olympics salute (adapted, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

…What they encountered, however, were the ugly tentacles of racism, systematically ignoring their existence, concerns and needs. Sixteen to 20 of these Black professionals and students caucused in one of the hotel rooms to share their mutual concerns and antagonisms and worked out a strategy to deal with the distress; thus originated the genesis of the Association of Black Psychologists.

From the beginning, the ABPsi was profoundly concerned with implications of race in psychological theory and practice, and mental health issues for African-Americans, in addition to professional support and development for African-Americans in psychology. King again:

Much of the energy during the originating year, 1968-69 was divided between denouncing racism with APA [American Psychological Association]; and building Black pride through organizing our own professional Association. In an initial press statement announcing ABPsi formation, the group condemned the racist character of the American society as manifested in the shortcomings and failure of APA to recognize the new Black movement as a viable problem-solving modality…

Brother Chuck and Sister Ernestine Thomas, our first National Coordinators worked diligently in the nation’s capital, confronting APA at every turn. ABPsi’s major issues were summarized in a “Petition of Concerns” and presented to the non-black group. This document outlined seven action steps to assist in the eradication of racism within APA as well as the larger white community. The American Psychological Association selected to continue its racists behaviors by evading the concrete issues placed before them, and in typical style, allocated a pittance of $4,000 for a working conference to address graduate student/faculty recruitment for the so-called “disadvantaged” groups.

Chuck – Charles W. Thomas II – was one of the founders [PDF], and one of those named “father of black psychology” (by students).

Within a couple of years – which also saw a clash between the APA and a new Black Students Psychological Association – there was some reform and new professional support for African-Americans. Critically, though, the APA didn’t, for example, support ABPsi’s call for a ban on psychological testing.

 

 

The ABPsi now has over 1,400 members, an annual convention, a journal and news magazine, chapters, and support programs for students and professionals. The ABPsi is on Twitter.

 

7. Political Scientists

 

Mack Henry Jones was a professor of political science, who was expelled as a student for participating in a sit-in. There’s a bio and interview with him here, including talking about the beginning of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS). He was one of the founders, and the first president of the NCOBPS. The first woman president was Jewel Limar Prestage in 1976.

At the NCOBPS 20th anniversary, Jones reflected on the genesis of the organization:

The NCOBPS was one of the organizations that grew out of this [Civil Rights Movement] awareness of the need to organize and the virtue of organizing. Those who were involved in the preparatory conference called in 1969 at Southern University were assembled to discuss professional problems of black political scientists within the discipline in general and within the American Political Science Association (APSA) in particular. As we deliberated, our focus and concerns quickly broadened. Rather than situating ourselves within the ongoing process and limiting our concerns to achieving equity within that process, we began to challenge the process itself…

To be sure, there were differences among us on several important questions… The idea of a separate black organization unmoved by the dynamics of APSA struck them as a retreat into irrelevance and acceptance of second-class status.

 

The NCOBPS now has about 400 members, who have contact with about 20,000 students:

NCOPBS also has a long tradition of identifying, mentoring, and supporting students interested in political science, including areas of political communication, public policy and administration, public affairs, comparative politics, and international relations. We offer scholarships, fellowships, and research awards to undergraduate and graduate students, and provide many activities for students to network and collaborate with faculty and practitioners of political science.

They have published several journals, issue awards, and have scientific meetings.

 

8. Optometrists

 

In 1969, 25 optometrists met in Virginia to found the National Optometric Association (NOA). The meeting had been called by C. Clayton Powell [PDF] of Georgia, and John L. Howlette of Virginia:

For some time, Drs. Powell and Howlette had tried to generate support for such an organization. They introduced their idea often in a monthly newsletter, the NOA Journal, which they funded, published and distributed to a list of approximately twenty-five black optometrists nationwide.

Even though their numbers were relatively few, the new National Optometric Association did not begin without opposition. From those who were against the idea, there emerged one consistent grievance: African American optometrists had worked hard to integrate society as well as the predominantly white American Optometric Association (AOA). The naysayers regarded the efforts of Drs. Powell and Howlette as re-segregation. In their minds, the NOA was a step backward.

Powell was elected the first president. He was born in 1927 in Alabama, and he told his amazing life story for the Morehouse Oral History Project: it’s on YouTube.

 

 

NOA has provided scholarships and other grants through a foundation, and worked to address eye health disparities.

NOA’s website is here, and they’re on Twitter.

 

9. Economists

 

The National Economic Association began as the Caucus of Black Economists in 1969:

More than 65 black economists in attendance at the December, 1969, meeting of the American Economic Association, met together and formed what has become the Caucus of Black Economists. The need for this Caucus arose largely from a concern expressed by some of the black economists during the year preceding the meeting, that the nature and degree of black involvement in the AEA was inadequate, and also from a feeling that the AEA should become more actively involved in helping to increase the flow of black students into the profession. Several brothers on the West Coast, under the leadership of Professor Charles Z. Wilson, Marcus Alexis, and Thaddeus Spratlen, had exchanged correspondence with members of the AEA Executive Committee prior to the annual meeting and arrangements were made to meet with members of the Executive Committee at the time of the meeting. On the opening morning of the annual meeting the Caucus held its initial gathering. Most of those present were meeting one another for the first time and it was an inspiring experience for those who were present. Whereas 25 to 30 persons had been expected to attend, in fact some 60 persons checked in to this first session, completely exhausting the supply of packets of background information which had been prepared!

Marcus Alexis was the first chairman. I don’t know who the first woman was in the leadership position.

In 1969, there were believed to be less than 60 African-Americans with PhDs in economics, and few were invited to speak at economics conferences. The organization’s first mission statement set out their purpose as to “increase the supply of black economists, and to promote research and publication on economic issues of importance to the black community”.

The NEA holds meetings and publishes The Review of Black Political Economy and The Minority Report.

The NEA website is here, and they are on Twitter.

 

 

 

10. Mathematicians

 

African-American mathematicians had long struggled to participate in national mathematical meetings. Even when William S. Claytor gave an address to the American Mathematical Society (AMS), he was not allowed to stay at the hotel. And that was still going on into the ’60s. [PDF] Walter R. Talbot put it this way:

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.

He also said:

Nowadays our promising youth are even more menacingly threatened by exposure to teachers who have not only been vigorously and successfully indoctrinated relative to the difficulty of mathematics, but also have been convinced to their viscera that Blacks, however successful in sports, music, politics, law, medicine, and so on and so on, are abysmally and irrevocably hopeless as far as mathematics is concerned.

 

 

Talbot organized and got funding for the meetings to form an African-American mathematical society. [PDF] In 1969, 17 gathered at the annual national mathematical meeting and formed the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM). They wanted to promote mathematics in their communities, and to improve excellence and opportunities for scholars in mathematical science.

One of NAM’s founders, 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.

NAM’s first president was Frank James, who was honored by the White House as an agent of change in 2015. James was one of the student activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), included being arrested for a lunch counter sit-in in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1960. (I don’t know who the first woman president of NAM was.)

The NAM website is here. They have an active scientific and support program for mathematicians and students, including awards, meetings, and joint meetings with the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

The current NAM president was recently in the New York Times:

 

 

Mathematical drawing on blackboard

 

Interested in more about African-American mathematicians?

Check out my post last year on their stories.

 

 

 

This is the second of a 4-part series for Black History Month 2019:

Part 1 — The First Wave (1895 to 1947)

Part 3 – From Sociologists to Engineers

Part 4 — From Anthropologists to Academic Surgeons

 

 

~~~~

 

The photo of participants at the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS) held at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), Berkeley, California in June 1995: Dr. Dawn Lott-Crumpler, Tasha Inniss, Darryl Corey, Flory Holmes, Willette Johnson. Photo by Lenore Blum, via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of the preparation of this post, I created a Wikipedia page for Ruth Graves King, the first woman president of the Association of Black Psychologists.

I cropped and saved in black and white the Wikimedia Commons photo of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the ceremony to receive their medals at the 1968 Olympics.

The blackboard image thumbnail 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”.

 

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