12 Famous Black Mathematicians and Their Contributions

The following names represent those famous black mathematicians who beat the odds against their discrimination and achieved excellence in the field of mathematics.

1. Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

Best known for: Constructing a clock that struck hourly

Although best known as an African-American scientist, Benjamin Banneker was a multi-talented person who self-educated himself in astronomy and mathematics. He was also a writer, compiler of almanacs, surveyor and inventor. At the age of 24, Banneker observed a wrist-watch and used it to construct his own clock from wood which struck on the hour. He created puzzles for trigonometry which demonstrated his knowledge of logarithms. Banneker also attempted to find the exact lengths of an equilateral triangle which is inscribed within a circle where the diameter of the circle is known. He brought about a positive contribution in mathematics years before any black mathematician came to rise.

2. Charles Lewis Reason (1818-1893)

Best known for: First African-American to teach in a pre-dominantly white college

Although Reason’s contributions to the field are not spectacular, he is remembered as the first African-American to be appointed university professor at a pre-dominantly white college, that was, New York Central College, McGrawville. Charles Reason was an early child prodigy in mathematics as his parents laid great emphasis on education from the very beginning. At the age of 14, Charles began teaching at the African Free School in New York from where he embarked upon his life-long career as an educationist. He has worked tirelessly to promote education among the blacks and even founded that Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children.

3. Kelly Miller (1863-1939)

Best known for: First African-American to attend John Hopkins University

Mathematician, sociologist, columnist, essayist and scholar, Kelly Miller had a remarkable influence on the intellectual life of African-Americans. When a minister took notice of Miller’s exceptional mathematical abilities, he sent him to Fairfield Institute from where he earned a scholarship to Howard and later attended John Hopkins for post-graduate studies in mathematics, physics and astronomy. However, when JH raised their tuition fee, Miller left and adopted a teaching career in sociology and later pursued his mathematics study. Miller was also the first person to teach sociology at Howard University.

4. Dudley Weldon Woodard (1881-1965)

Best known for: Second African-American to earn Ph.D in mathematics and established the mathematics graduate program at Howard University

Dudley Woodard is remembered as the second African-American to achieve a Ph.D degree in Mathematics from Penn. Woodard had more achievements than any of his predecessors. He managed to publish his masters’ level thesis, ‘Loci Connected with the Problem of Two Bodies’ and taught college-level math for 20 years. He was also the dean at Howard – the most prestigious university for black Americans at the time. At Howard, Woodard established a graduate program in mathematics and furthered it by establishing a mathematics library, sponsored professorships and seminars- in short, Woodard advanced the mathematics faculty steadily in only quarter of a century. He is distinguished as one of the greatest Black Mathematicians of all time.

5. Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890–1980)

Best known for: First African-American woman to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics

Although she is remembered as the first black American woman with a Ph.D in mathematics in 1943, this was only a stepping stone in Martha Haynes’ extraordinary and highly influential career. She played an instrumental role in changing the face of the education system from which the blacks were often segregated or very few in number. For forty-seven years, Haynes taught at Washington DC’s public schools where she was also the first woman to chair the DC School Board. Haynes’ also served as chair at Dunbar High School and District of Columbia Teachers College for their respective mathematics departments. At Miner Teachers College, she went as far as establishing the mathematics department altogether.

6. Elbert Frank Cox (1895-1969)

Best known for: First African-American ever to receive Ph.D in Mathematics

Elbert Frank Cox is a name that will perhaps never be missed out when speaking about black mathematicians. In 1925, Cox became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D in mathematics. He inspired many future black mathematicians and served a 40 year long teaching career. He taught at Howard University and West Virginia State College. The Cox Talbot Address is annually delivered at National Association of Mathematicians’ national meetings in his honour and the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund which is used to help black students achieve educational goals is also named in his honour.

7. William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor (1908-1967)

Best known for: Third African-American to receive a Ph.D in Mathematics

Being Dudley Woodward’s most promising student at Howard, it is no surprise that William Calytor was recommended for further studies at Penn. Claytor quickly earned himself an outstanding reputation at Penn where he won the Harrison Scholarship in Mathematics and later the Harrison Fellowship in Mathematics- the most prestigious award Penn had to offer. Moreover, his dissertation was also well-received by the faculty at Penn because it furthered the theory of Peano Continua-a branch of point-set topology.

Come 1933, Claytor became the third African-American Ph.D holder and joined West Virginia College as a faculty member. Later in his life, Claytor earned a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1937 to further develop his theory on Imbeddability on questions regarding homogenous continua. Unfortunately, he went through a rough patch after which Claytor managed to return to his teaching work but did not get back to his research which left many colleagues at Penn disappointed.

8. Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979)

Best known for: Third African-American to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics

Another prominent female mathematician and educator was Marjorie Browne who was the third black woman to earn a doctorate in her field. Not only did she chair the Mathematics Department at North Carolina College but also responsible for setting up the first electronic digital computer center at a minority college in 1960. Browne taught undergraduate and graduate level math and published four sets of lecture notes during that time for other teachers to use. Furthermore, in 1950s, Browne won a Ford Foundation grant to Cambridge University and other grants to University of California and Columbia University thus allowing her to travel vastly for her field of study as well.

9. David Harold Blackwell (1919-2010)

Best known for: First black faculty member at UC Berkeley and only black American inducted into National Academy of Sciences

Perhaps one of the greatest African-American mathematicians, David Blackwell is part eponymous of the Rao-Blackwell Theorem, first black inductee (and only) into the National Academy of Sciences and first tenured member of faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Blackwell has also been the President of the American Statistical Society and Vice President of America Mathematics Society.

10. Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011)

Best known for: Entering University at the age of 13

Rightly referred to as the ‘negro genius’ in the media, this African-American was a mathematician, mechanical engineer and nuclear scientist who became the youngest ever student on entering the University of Chicago at the age of 13. Wilkins worked as a contributor to the Manhattan Project during World War II, wrote numerous scientific papers, earned many awards, served several important posts and aided recruitment of minority students into science courses. Jesse Wilkins served in his respective fields for seventy years making undeniable contributions to optics, civil and nuclear engineering and pure and applied mathematics.

11. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (1918)

Best known for: Helping NASA put an astronaut into orbit around Earth. And then helping put a man on the moon

She started high school when she was just 10 years old, and at the age of 15, Katherine began college and graduated 3 years later.

After college, she became a teacher at school until she got married and had children. When her husband became very sick, she started teaching again to support her family.

When Katherine was 34, she heard that NACA (later called NASA) was hiring African-American women to solve math problems. These workers were called “computers.” She applied for one of the jobs, but the jobs were already taken. Still, she did not give up. She applied again the next year, and this time NASA hired her. She worked with a large group of women who were all computers like she was. 

But Katherine was different from the other human computers. She asked a lot of questions. She wanted to learn more about her work and about NASA. So she started going to meetings. Before Katherine, only men attended these meetings. She changed that! She learned so much that she left her job as a computer. She became a team member who worked on different space projects.

Katherine studied how to use geometry for space travel. She figured out the paths for the spacecraft to orbit (go around) Earth and to land on the moon. NASA used Katherine's math, and it worked - they could not have done these things without Katherine Johnson and her love for math!

She worked for NASA for more than 30 years.

12. Annie Easley (1933 -2011)

Best known for: Helping make modern spaceflight possible

Few people are brilliant enough to be a computer programmer or a mathematician. Even fewer can add "rocket scientist for NASA” to their resume. Annie Easley, however, was all three. During her 34-year career, she worked on developing and implementing computer code that analyzed alternative power technologies, supported the Centaur high-energy upper rocket stage, determined solar, wind and energy projects, identified energy conversion systems and alternative systems to solve energy problems. Her energy assignments included studies to determine the life use of storage batteries, such as those used in electric utility vehicles. Her computer applications have been used to identify energy conversion systems that offer the improvement over commercially available technologies. And if that wasn’t notable enough, Easley also did all of this as one of the first few African-Americans in her field.

She retired in 1989 (some sources say 1991).

Take a moment to celebrate some of the amazing achievements from people who had virtually no education at all.

He isn’t the one to let something like being the fourth richest man on the planet stop him from getting a good deal.

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics, but there are equivalents...