Teaching Tuesday: Unsung Black Mathematical Educational Innovators

By Tracy Vasquez, Emily Farkas, Dusty Sanchez, and Marjaneh Gilpatrick, faculty

Black mathematics teacher with young students

As we wrap-up Black History Month, our tribute in the blog to unsung STEM educational innovators, we would like to focus our attention on Black mathematicians. To reinforce positive identity for our students of color, it is important to discuss the accomplishments of diverse cultures in the educational setting. These thought leaders' contributions should be appreciated, shared and celebrated.1

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890 - 1980)

As the first Black American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, Euphemia Loften Haynes was also the first woman to serve as chair of the Washington, D.C. school board. In addition to serving as a leader of the math department at Dunbar High School and at the Teachers College in Washington, D.C., she helped to establish the math department at Miner Teachers College as adjunct professor. She is credited for improving the educational system for Black students.

Elbert Frank Cox (1895 - 1969)

Elbert Frank Cox was the first African American to receive a PhD in mathematics. Upon earning his bachelor's degree in 1917 from Indiana University, he joined the Army and fought in World War I. After returning from the war he taught high school math and was soon accepted into a mathematics doctoral program at Cornell University. Cox later went on to teach at Howard University and received many honors for his contributions. To honor his contributions to the field, Howard University established a scholarship fund in his name with ties to the National Association of Mathematics.

Marjorie Lee Browne (1914 - 1979)

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Howard University, Marorie Lee Browne taught high school and college-level math in New Orleans. She was soon accepted into the University of Michigan to continue her studies in mathematics and later accepted a teaching fellowship while in pursuit of her doctorate degree. She became another early Black American woman to earn her PhD in mathematics.

She went on to teach at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) where she taught for 30 years. Browne was not only passionate about teaching mathematics, but also computer science. She wrote a grant to bring one of the first computers to the NCCU campus. In her tenure at NCCU, she established several summer institutes and was awarded the W.W. Rankin Memorial Award from the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923 - 2011)

A mechanical engineer, nuclear scientist and mathematician, Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII and wrote almost 100 papers, including 55 on mathematics. He used his background in mathematics to serve as a professor at Howard University in Applied Mathematical Physics. He was the second Black American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Some might consider him to be a genius because he was only 13 years old when he began attending the University of Chicago, where he earned five science degrees.

As you help your classroom students continue to learn and appreciate the contributions of these Black mathematical scholars, also consider how you can act as an innovator and inspiration to propel your students to greatness in mathematical endeavors.

1Retrieved from Math & Movement, 8 Famous Black Mathematicians and Their Contributions, in February 2021.

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