Learn about the Contributions of Famous Black Mathematicians

Celebrating the Black mathematicians who have greatly impacted our nation and the future of mathematics.

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9 Famous Black Mathematicians and Their Contributions

Happy Black History Month,  an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans. As educators, we can celebrate by discussing the central role many black Americans have had in US history with our students.

The contributions of black Americans throughout our nation’s history are numerous and significant. Today, we want to highlight and celebrate the black mathematicians who have greatly impacted our nation and the future of mathematics.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

Benjamin Banneker was a primarily self-educated mathematician and astronomer. He is best known for building America’s first clock at the age of 24. He also was able to accurately forecast lunar and solar eclipses.

Banneker’s deep curiosity and understanding of mathematics greatly paved the way years before any other black mathematicians in the US.

Benjamin Banneker

Elbert Frank Cox (1895-1969)

Elbert Frank Cox was the first black American ever to receive a PhD in Mathematics (1925, Cornell University). In his 40-year long teaching career, he taught at Howard University and West Virginia State College.

The National Association of Mathematicians established the Cox-Talbot Address in his honor, which is annually delivered at the NAM’s national meetings. The Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund, which is used to help black students pursue studies, is also named in his honor.

Dudley Weldon Woodard (1881-1965)

Dudley Woodard was the second black to earn a PhD in mathematics (1928, University of Pennsylvania). He established the mathematics graduate program at Howard University. Praised as one of the greatest black mathematicians of all time, Woodard had many incredible accomplishments.

His thesis and other research were published in reputable mathematics journals. He taught college-level mathematics for 40 years, mentoring several other students who also received PhDs.

Dudley Weldon Woodard

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890–1980)

Martha Euphemia Loften Haynes was the first black American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. In 1943, Haynes earned her PhD. in Mathematics at The Catholic University in Washington, DC. She was the first woman to chair the DC School Board.

Haynes also served as math chair at Dunbar High School and at DC’s Teachers College. She established the math department at Miner Teachers College and taught part-time as an adjunct professor at Howard University. She played an instrumental role in changing the face of the education system for black students.

Euphemia Haynes

Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979)

Marjorie Browne was the third black woman to earn a PhD in mathematics (1949,  University of Michigan). She chaired the mathematics department at North Carolina College. In 1960, she set up an electronic digital computer center there, one of the first of its kind at a minority college.

David Blackwell (1919-2010)

David Blackwell was an incredible American statistician and mathematician, He made significant contributions to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and Bayesian statistics.

Blackwell was the first black American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley. He was also the seventh black American to receive a PhD in Mathematics.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011)

Jesse Ernest Wilkins was a world-class American mathematician, mechanical engineer, and nuclear scientist. He attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13, becoming its youngest ever student. He earned five science degrees during his life.

Wilkins worked as a contributor to the Manhattan Project during World War II. He wrote almost 100 scientific papers (over 55 in mathematics). He was the second black American elected to the National Academy of Engineering (1965).

In 1970, Wilkins served Howard University as its distinguished professor of Applied Mathematical Physics and founded the university’s new PhD program in mathematics.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr.

Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020)

Katherine Johnson’s passion for mathematics began at an early age. She skipped several grades and began college courses at West Virginia University when she was thirteen!

After receiving her doctorate, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ West Area Computing group. This was a group of human computational experts (called “computers” before the advent of modern mechanical computers) composed entirely of black American women.

In 1962, she provided the orbital entry and launch window calculations that enabled John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. She also provided calculations that coordinated the Apollo moon landing. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and her work was profiled in the film Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson

Dr. Gladys West (1930)

Dr. Gladys West was born in 1930, on a small farm in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. From a young age, she saw getting an education as her ticket to freedom and a life away from the tiring farm work that consumed most of her childhood.

In high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend Virginia State College. After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, she accepted a job offer to work at a naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia.

Throughout her career, Dr. West manifested exceptional steadfastness. She never stopped learning and kept pushing herself to do the hard work. Her accomplishments laid the groundwork for the invention of one of the most indispensable technological wonders of the modern world, the global positioning system (GPS).

Fern Hunt (1948)

Fern Yvette Hunt is a mathematician known for her work in applied mathematics and mathematical biology. Hunt grew up in a housing project in New York City. She was encouraged by her junior high school chemistry teacher to attend the Bronx High School of Science.

She majored in mathematics at Bryn Mawr College and continued her education with a master’s degree and PhD in mathematics from the Courant Institute of Mathematics at New York University. She currently works as a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where she conducts research on the ergodic theory of dynamical systems.

Who is your favorite mathematician? Let us know if we missed anyone!

14 Responses

  1. Thank you! My school’s student council wants to highlight this during February – Black History month. This website was posted to help our students. Again, thank you for this information!

  2. Untold stories, thank you so much for sharing Great knowledge these Amazing Leaders left for us to embrace.

    1. Thank you so much for that suggestion! I will update the blog to include her amazing contribution to the world.

    1. thank you my son really needed help for his project and he found some good people just because of you thank you

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