The Emergence of African-Americans in Mathematics

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The Emergence of African-Americans in Mathematics

Overview

Today, fewer than 1% of professional mathematicians are African-American. Compared to their overall proportion of the general population (slightly more than 10%), this is a very small number. There are a number of social and economic factors that explain this relative underrepresentation, one of which is that until the twentieth century few African-Americans were allowed to earn graduate degrees in any technical or scientific field. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, African-American mathematicians have had an influence that extends beyond their research and teaching. By their example, these mathematicians have also demonstrated that Africans can succeed in complex, abstract fields, in spite of many whites who felt (or still feel) otherwise.

Background

No African-American was awarded a doctorate in mathematics until 1925, when Elbert Cox (1895-1969) became the first black in the world to earn this distinction. In that year only 28 mathematics doctorates were awarded in the entire United States. For a black American to achieve a place among this very select group just 60 years after the end of the Civil War at a time when even many advantaged students did not complete an undergraduate degree was impressive in the extreme. After Cox came an increasing stream of African-American mathematicians, augmented at times by very talented blacks from outside the United States. Within the United States, David Blackwell (1919- ), Earnest Wilkins (1923- ), Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979), and Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924- ) each won distinction in their pursuit of mathematics, and deserve special mention.

David Blackwell has been called the greatest black mathematician. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1941, only the seventh African-American to do so. During his career he published over 90 scientific papers and mentored over 50 graduate students in mathematics. He was the first African-American to be a faculty member at Princeton University, the first to become a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and the first African-American president of the American Statistical Society. His accomplishments are even more significant in light of the pre-Civil Rights era in which he achieved them.

The first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics was Evelyn Boyd Granville, who graduated from Yale in 1949. Following on her heels was Marjorie Lee Browne, whose Ph.D. was completed at the same time, but not awarded until 1950. Other notable African-American women in mathematics include Etta Falconer and Fern Hunt, both of whom have made significant contributions in a number of areas. As black women they had to overcome double hurdles in their pursuit of a graduate education in mathematics. Not only were blacks often considered incapable of succeeding in mathematics, but the field was also traditionally thought to be the province of men only. The fact that these women not only achieved their goals, but did so in the face of this dual prejudice is impressive and speaks volumes of their intelligence and determination.

Through much of the 1800s and even into the twentieth century Africans were thought incapable of high intellectual achievement. In the United States, this is partly a result of slavery, which created a negative image of blacks in the public mind, a view that was reinforced by pseudoscientific findings that "proved" the inferiority of Africans. While there are many other reasons for these erroneous views, the truth is that blacks are as capable as members of any other race, a fact that is amply demonstrated by the success of the African-American mathematicians noted above, their colleagues, and African-Americans in other fields ranging from astronomy to engineering to the astronaut corps.

Impact

The influence of these pioneering African-American mathematicians cannot be understated. First, they made significant contributions to the field of mathematics through their research, teaching, and mentoring. These achievements alone refuted the argument that Africans lack the mental ability to comprehend advanced mathematics; by succeeding in this field they demonstrated their intellectual equality instead of merely arguing it. Finally, by their example, they showed other younger blacks that it is possible for them to succeed, too, in fields offering intellectual challenge. This also undercuts those who stereotype any racial group as inferior.

In addition, the scientific accomplishments of African-American mathematicians cannot not be underemphasized. David Blackwell's 90 papers in various branches of mathematics helped him become a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the first African-American to be so honored. This is not a "token" honor bestowed merely to balance racial disparity among recipients of such elite honors. Rather, it reflects his status as a great mathematician, regardless of skin color. Similarly, Nigerian mathematician George Okikiolu, who has published three books and nearly 200 scientific papers, has made significant and lasting contributions to the discipline of mathematics; his daughter Katherine promises more of the same.

As important as these scientific contributions are, it is likely that the example set by these men and women is even more important to society. As mentioned above, the centuries-long stereotype that blacks are not capable of performing at a high intellectual level has given innumerable bigots an excuse to discriminate against blacks in the job market, to place them in less skilled jobs, to keep them out of skilled military specialties, and more. When the first black earned a Ph.D. in mathematics, a field of extreme difficulty and abstraction, he showed that at least one black was capable of working at this rarified level of thought. As other African-Americans followed his example, they showed the world that he was not a fluke, but that blacks were as intellectually capable as any other race in the world. Fortunately, today increasing numbers of blacks occupy technical and scientific positions, which suggests that this stereotype may finally be eroding.

In addition to showing American society that African-Americans can succeed in mathematics, Blackwell, Hunt, Browne, and others have shown fellow blacks that they are equally capable. This is not only a point of pride for the black community, but a clear demonstration to all blacks that they, too, can do this level of work. In many ways, it is more discouraging to tell yourself, "I can't," than to hear someone else say, "You can't." Telling yourself that a goal—whether intellectual, career, financial, or otherwise—is impossible is to decide to not attempt it at all. Every African-American scientist who has succeeded has shown convincingly other blacks can attain similar success, limited only by their education, desires, determination, and talents.

It has been too short a time to determine how far and how rapidly the influence of these pioneering mathematicians will spread. We can hope that, as they continue to mentor students of all races and to produce high-quality research, they will continue to encourage young African-Americans to enter mathematics, engineering, and other technical fields. Everyone who can contribute to society should also have the opportunity to do so, and this opportunity, if seized upon, will benefit all.

P. ANDREW KARAM

Further Reading

Books

Dean, Nathaniel, ed. African-Americans in Mathematics:DIMACS Workshop, June 26-28, 1996. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1997.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1996.

Newell, Virginia K., ed. Black Mathematicians and TheirWorks. Ardmore, PA: Dorrance, 1980.

Other

Williams, Scott W. University of Buffalo. "Mathematicians of the African Diaspora." http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/mad0.html.

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The Emergence of African-Americans in Mathematics