Mathematics was the first scientific field in which African Americans made significant contributions. In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Banneker applied his knowledge of mathematics in the fields of surveying, clock-making, and astronomy. His calculations of the positions of celestial bodies, published in a series of almanacs between 1792 and 1797, were noted for their accuracy. A free black, Banneker was a counterexample to the widely held belief that blacks lacked reasoning and other intellectual abilities. Although many slaves used such skills as part of their daily routine, their work generally went unrecognized.
Mathematics provided a basis for the work of Edward Bouchet, the first black to be awarded a Ph.D. at an American university. Bouchet earned a doctorate in physics at Yale University in 1876 with a dissertation entitled "Measuring Refractive Indices." The first African American to earn a Ph.D. in pure mathematics was Elbert Frank Cox, at Cornell University in 1925. Cox's work on polynomial solutions, differential equations, and interpolation theory was highly regarded. He taught at Shaw University, West Virginia State College, and Howard University.
Before World War II, at least five other African Americans earned Ph.D.'s in mathematics. Dudley Weldon Woodard took his degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1928; William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, University of Pennsylvania, 1933; Walter Richard Talbot, University of Pittsburgh, 1934; Reuben Roosevelt McDaniel, Cornell University, 1938; and Joseph Alphonso Pierce, University of Michigan, 1938. Like Cox, they taught principally at black colleges and universities. In 1949 Evelyn Boyd (she later took the married names Granville and Collins) and Marjorie Lee Browne became the first African-American women to earn doctorates in mathematics, from Yale University and the University of Michigan, respectively. Browne taught at North Carolina Central University. In addition to teaching, Boyd's career included a period (1963–1967) as research specialist in celestial mechanics and orbit computation with the Apollo Project. J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., worked on the Manhattan Project (1944–1946) after earning a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1942. David Harold Blackwell, who was awarded a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1941, became internationally known for his work in statistics and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.
Although few in number, black mathematicians were in the vanguard of the struggle against racial discrimination in science. Their efforts to participate in the field—at meetings of professional associations, for example—prompted changes in institutional policy and shifts in attitude and outlook within the scientific community during the 1950s. While some associations had admitted members regardless of race prior to that period, meetings were still convened in cities where African Americans experienced difficulty with accommodations and access to social events. In 1951 Evelyn Boyd and other members of the mathematics department at Fisk University helped motivate the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America to adopt guidelines prohibiting the use of segregated sites and facilities for meetings.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, graduate departments in mathematics at white universities became more open to admitting African Americans. The numbers, however, have remained small. During the 1980s and 1990s less than 2 percent of all Ph.D.'s in mathematics were awarded to African Americans. By 2003 that number had risen to just over 3 percent. In the 1990s William Massey of Bell Laboratories (now Lucent Technologies) took the first steps toward the formation of the Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS), which holds annual meetings at major universities.
See also Banneker, Benjamin
Dean, Nathaniel, Cassandra M. McZeal, and Pamela J. Williams, eds. African-Americans in Mathematics II: Fourth Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, June 16–19, 1998, Rice University, Houston, Texas. Providence, R.I.: American Mathematical Society, 1999.
Newell, Virginia K., Joella H. Gipson, L. Waldo Rich, and Beauregard Stubblefield, eds. Black Mathematicians and Their Works. Ardmore, Penn.: Dorrance, 1980.
Pearson, Willie, Jr., and H. Kenneth Bechtel, eds. Blacks, Science, and American Education. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Van Sertima, Ivan, ed. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1983.
kenneth r. manning (1996)
jessica hornik-evans (2005)