Black History Month: Honoring Math Pioneers


In honor of Black History Month, let’s showcase a few African American mathematicians who have made their mark in the teaching profession. 

Elbert Frank Cox (1895-1969) was the first black person in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. In 1917, Cox earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Indiana, where he majored in mathematics. After serving overseas in World War I, he pursued a career in teaching. He taught in several public schools and then at Shaw University. In 1922, Dr. Cox enrolled in the graduate mathematics program at Cornell University. Encouraged by his thesis advisor, Cox would earn his Ph.D. in 1925. He went on to have a distinguished career, teaching at West Virginia State College and later at Howard University, where he became head of the mathematics department.

Martha Haynes

Dr. Martha Haynes

Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980) was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Dr. Haynes earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1914 from Smith College and her master’s degree in education in 1930 from the University of Chicago. In 1943 she earned her doctorate from The Catholic University of America. Her dissertation was titled "The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences." Dr. Haynes taught at the elementary, high school, and collegiate levels in Washington, D.C. for 47 years. In 1966, Dr. Haynes became the first women chair of the D.C. School Board. Upon her death in 1980, she left $700,000 to the Catholic University School of Education.

David Harold Blackwell (1919-2010) was the first African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Born in Centralia, Illinois, he earned his B.A and M.A. in mathematics from the University of Illinois. In 1941 at the young age of 22, he became only the seventh African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, also from the University of Illinois. Unable to gain a teaching position at a white university, he taught at Southern University, Clark College, and eventually Howard University, where he remained until 1954. Dr. Blackwell was then hired as a visiting teacher at the University of California, Berkeley and became the school’s first tenured African American professor  the following year. At Berkeley he also wrote mathematics textbooks, with a particular focus on game theory. Dr. Blackwell also  served as president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. 

Kelly Miller

Kelly Miller

Kelly Miller (1863-1939) was the first African-American graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. After earning an undergraduate degree from Howard University and working as a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office for two years, Miller was admitted to the graduate program at Johns Hopkins where he studied mathematics and physics. Unfortunately, Miller left the university after two years due to an increase in tuition; he then taught at a high school in Washington D.C. He later returned to Howard University where he earned an M.A. in mathematics (1901) and an LL.B from Howard University Law School (1903), in addition to becoming a professor of mathematics and sociology. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington, he advocated higher education for blacks, rather than industrial education as promoted by Washington. In 1897, Miller helped establish the American Negro Academy, the first organization in the U.S. devoted to African-American scholarship.


About Author

Staci Lyon

Staci Lyon is a mathematics curriculum specialist with Curriculum Pathways. She taught high school mathematics for 12 years in Wake County and Granville County. She also taught with North Carolina Virtual Public School. She received both a M.Ed. degree in Instructional Technology and a B. S. degree in Mathematics Education from North Carolina State University. Working alongside a team, she enjoys developing the award winning online math resources for Curriculum Pathways that allow teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends.

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