8 Famous Black Mathematicians and Their Contributions
Happy Black History Month! Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans. As educators, we can celebrate by discussing the central role many African Americans have had in US history with our students.
The contributions of African 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 – a wooden device that struck hourly. 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.
Elbert Frank Cox (1895-1969)
Elbert Frank Cox was the first African-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 African-American to earn a PhD in mathematics (1928, University of Pennsylvania) and established the mathematics graduate program at Howard University. Praised as one of the greatest Black Mathematicians of all time, Woodard had many incredible accomplishments, having his thesis and other research published in reputable mathematics journals. He taught college-level mathematics for 40 years, mentoring several other students who also received PhDs.
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 Ph.D. in Mathematics at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. 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.
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 and, 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 who made significant contributions to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and Bayesian statistics. Blackwell was the first African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley, and the seventh African 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 African 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.
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, a group of human computational experts (called “computers” before the advent of modern mechanical computers) composed entirely of African American women. In 1962, she provided the orbital entry and launch window calculations that enabled John Glenn’s orbit around the moon. 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.
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).
Who is your favorite mathematician? Let us know if we missed anyone!
Learn more about the Math & Movement program at www.mathandmovement.com.