An Existence Proof: The Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website

Guest Authors:
Erica Walker, Scott Williams, and Robin Wilson

In Mathematics, more than any other field of study, have we heard proclamations and statements similar to, “The Negro is incapable of succeeding.” Ancient and present achievements contradict such statements. One of the purposes of this website is to exhibit the inaccuracy of those proclamations by exhibiting the accomplishments of the peoples of Africa and the African Diaspora within the Mathematical Sciences.[1]

Over twenty years ago, SUNY Buffalo Professor Scott Williams took it upon himself to create a website in the early days of the internet that would provide African Americans with access to the many, little told stories of African Americans mathematicians.  He called the website the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora.  At the time, most images of African Americans in popular culture were of athletes, actors and musicians, and little information was available about African Americans in the Sciences, let along in Mathematics. This website is being updated and modernized and the new version is available at www.mathad.com.  In this article we share reflections from three authors, including Scott Williams himself, on the importance that the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website has had on their lives and careers, and on the American mathematics community in general.

Introduction, Robin Wilson

In 1792, Thomas Jefferson who was secretary of state at the time but would soon become the third President of the United States expressed his opinion about the potential for an entire race of people to contribute in a meaningful way to the mathematical sciences:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory [the Negro] are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”[2]

Over 100 years later, in the 20th century these attitudes were still prevalent in American society and were not only embraced by the academy in America and Europe; indeed, academics were the source of many of these racist attitudes and beliefs.  In The Measure of Intelligence, Stanford Professor and former American Psychological Association President Lewis Terman stated in 1916 about “Mexican families of the southwest and American Negroes” that “They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers” and that “from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding”[3]. The consequences of such attitudes still have widespread repercussions today as evidenced by Lisa Delpit’s book Multiplication is for White People, when she shares the story of a middle school math student telling his teacher “Black people don’t multiply; Black people just add and subtract. White people multiply”[4].

Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1940’s and 50’s Scott Williams was no stranger to these myths. Scott decided to earn his PhD at the age of 12 after his mother took him to visit MIT. He went on to study mathematics at Morgan State University under the late-great Clarence Stephens, and he earned his PhD in 1967 in General Topology from Lehigh University. Scott’s upbringing in the large Black community of Baltimore, as well as his experience at Morgan State University, provided him with a large amount of evidence of Black intellectual excellence, and left little room for doubt about his own potential. After earning his PhD he joined the faculty in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Buffalo in 1971, and documented his own struggles with racism at the university in the 1970’s.

Morgan State Professor Clarence Stephens and wife Harriet, and Morgan State alumni and mathematicians Grainger, Barnes, Reese, Williams

Much later in his career, Scott decided to experiment a bit with the relatively new thing called “the internet” by building his own website so that he could learn to code in html along the way.  It was to become the latest of one of his many hobbies that also include art and poetry.  The content of the site was to be motivated by one purpose:  To dispose of the myths of the inability of people of African descent to excel in the mathematics classroom and to perform mathematics research at the highest levels.  To do this he would focus on both the historical contributions of the continent of Africa to the early development of mathematics, as well as share profiles of as many mathematicians of African descent with PhD’s that he could find.  He ended up with a list of profiles for over 500 mathematicians from around the African Diaspora, with most of them alive and working at the time his site first went live.  Scott called the website the “Mathematicians of the African Diaspora” or the MAD pages for short.  The acronym was not only catchy but it also represented the subtle sentiment of a large number of Blacks in the mathematics community that had to persist in the discipline despite experiences with overt racism and other forms of wide-ranging systematic attempts to exclude and discourage them from participating.

Screenshot from title page of Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website

 

Reflection, Robin Wilson

It was around my junior year in college when I decided to take on mathematics as a major.  Despite my success with my mathematics

A young Elbert F. Cox, PhD in Mathematics from Cornell University in 1925

courses it was not an easy decision, especially since it meant I was going to be isolated as one of the only Black math majors at the institution. I was also putting my education in the hands of faculty who had not experienced many, if any, Black students in their classrooms and provided no mentorship.  In fact, when I decided that I would go into mathematics at one point in time I thought for a moment that I could be the first Black mathematician because I didn’t know of anyone before me that had chosen this path.  It was around this time that I discovered Scott William’s website Mathematicians of the African Diaspora.  I was amazed to find the profiles of over 500 Black mathematicians.  From Scott’s site I learned that the first Black PhD mathematician was Frank Elbert Cox, who earned his PhD in 1925 from Cornell University.  This achievement is remarkable for the fact most institutions in the US frowned upon having Black students at any level, and in addition only 28 PhD’s in mathematics were given out that year.

Euphemia Lofton Haynes, PhD in Mathematics from Catholic University in 1943

From the MAD pages I also learned about people such as J. Ernest Wilkins who earned his PhD in mathematics at 19 in 1936, the same year that Jesse Owens sent his own blow to the Eugenics movement with his 4 gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. And about Euphemia Lofton Hayes, the first Black woman to earn a PhD in the US in 1943, four years before Jesse Owens joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and 13 years before Althea Gibson become the first woman of color to win a Grand Slam title in Tennis (the French Open).  I also found it quite frustrating that as a young person I learned a lot about these athletic achievements that I was told I could aspire to, yet I learned nothing in school or at home about these great intellectual achievements.

J. Ernest Wilkins, Johnny Houston, David Blackwell, and Lee Lorch

Ishango Bone, dated to the Upper Paleolithic believed to have originated between 18,00 BC and 20,000 BC.

I also spent time searching the site’s historical information on the contributions of the African continent to mathematics from the dawn of time to the present.  Scott painted a picture of a continuous stream of contributions by people of the African Diaspora from pre-history to the present that started with some of the oldest mathematical artifacts ever found, the Lebomo and Ishango Bones, the Ahmes (or Rhind) Papyrus, and the Moscow Papyrus.   The story continues through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and includes Thomas Fuller, the slave born in Africa who could perform extraordinary feats of mental arithmetic; as well as Benjamin Banneker, who was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and made contributions to both astronomy and mathematics.  The story picks up

Amhes (or Rhind) Mathematical Papyrus, dates to about 1550 BC.

immediately after slavery with figures like Kelly Miller, who was the first Black mathematics graduate student at Johns Hopkins from 1887-1889.  Miller went on to teach mathematics at Howard University, and hired Elbert F. Cox and many others.  The MAD site takes us up to present day, and for several years the site was updated annually with profiles of the new Black mathematics PhD’s that graduated each year until Scott stopped maintaining the website around 2006.

The value of this resource should not be overlooked.  This was a labor of love that Scott Williams took on as a hobby for almost years.  He also did not anticipate the number of responses he would receive from students and teachers around the country, nor could he imagine the number of lives he would touch that he will never hear about.  I can say almost with certainty that without having found Scott’s site I would not have had the persistence to continue in mathematics as a student, nor would I have the same foundation and perspective needed for me to find my place in the mathematics community as a professor.

Scott stopped maintaining the website when he retired from SUNY Buffalo.  While the site is still up on the SUNY Buffalo servers (http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/) there has been a recent effort, led by the National Association of Mathematicians, to transfer the content of the MAD pages to a new server host and to modernize the website.

In what follows, you will find a reflection on the website and its impact from Scott Williams in his own words. Also included is an essay from Erica Walker, author of Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and Paths to Excellence, where she shares the importance of the website to her own work as well as the larger mathematics education community.

 

Reflection, Scott Williams

Scott Williams

Over tweny years ago, in 1997, I began the website Mathematicians of the African Diaspora or MAD. As a child I was struck by the emphasis, within the general American culture, upon achievements in the Sports/Entertainment Industry as indications of success. Within the African American subculture, those indications are even stronger – just consider the winners of the NAACP Image Awards among other celebrations. On the rare occasion a scientist has won an award, there has been a limitation to the medical field. In addition, where it concerns successes in mathematics and the sciences, I discovered much incorrect or misconstrued information available in texts and especially on the web.

The impetus for creating MAD was a desire to suggest modern Mathematicians and Scientists as images of success to present to the African American community. My steadfast personal view over the years has been thinking precisely has more class than looking good. As mathematicians’ interest often vary, I added both Computer Science and Physics to the web site before those fields began their own projects of this nature. For some years I also provided a location for data on The African National Congress.

My qualifications include 7 years in the segregated Baltimore public schools (5 more as a guinea pig in ‘desegregated’ schools), 4 years of excellent undergraduate mathematics training with research orientation at a historically Black College, 4 years of graduate training with research orientation, numerous Master’s Degree students (at Pennsylvania State University, Ohio University, and the University of Buffalo).  In addition, I have had four Ph.D. students, have spent four decades as a research mathematician with interests in Topology, Logic and Dynamics, am a member of the Council of the African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, and I have a personal library of thousands of books by Africans and African Americans.

What problems did I encounter other than debts to my personal time?

  • At a time when web space was measured in kilobytes and megabytes, my department (SUNY at Buffalo) opened gigabytes for my web space use in this project, yet I was unable to obtain financial resources, inside or outside the university, to aid my efforts. During the 2006 Black History Month, MAD received four hundred thousand visitors and nearly ten thousand emails.
  • I am thankful that my department chairs agreed to provide legal help in the project. I received a number of legal threats from individuals who did not wish to be known as African American Mathematicians, and from individuals who deemed the project as racist.

Positive acknowledgements have been received from The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, USA Today and Science Magazine to name a few; however, I must thank the more than twenty million visitors to the website, it is they that have exhibited its worth.

Scott W. Williams
Mathematics Professor Emeritus of The University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Impact of the MAD Pages, Erica Walker

I don’t recall how I first was introduced to the MAD website, but as a mathematics educator interested in history and historical developments in mathematics, it was crucial to expanding my knowledge base about Black mathematicians. MAD, quite wonderfully, had extensive citations and links to important archival documents, books, articles, and other texts that have been critical to my own work and research as a professor of mathematics education. It was here that one could easily find information about Black mathematicians in the United States and around the world, information that was unfortunately for many years missing from the broader discourse about mathematicians and their work. It was here that one could learn about the role of organizations and institutions in the development of initiatives that increased the participation of African Americans in mathematics. And it was here that I first learned of Thomas Fuller, an important historical figure who has become central to my own research exploring the formative, educational, and professional experiences of mathematicians in the United States. Fuller has served as a central metaphor for the work I do around equity in mathematics education – his life underscores that mathematics talent can often go unrecognized and unrewarded. But for a twist of fate, many more of us would know Thomas Fuller’s name in addition to, say, that of Benjamin Banneker. Because Banneker was born free and was literate, we know much of his mathematical experiences and contributions to US history. Fuller died as an enslaved person: indeed, as his obituary posted on the MAD website notes: “Had his opportunity been equal to those of thousands of his fellow men, even a Newton himself should have shamed to acknowledge him a brother in science”. In many speeches and talks, I have posed the question to mathematics teachers, administrators, and researchers alike—‘Are there Fullers among us?’ –and exhorted them to conduct policy, practice, and research that seeks to focus on excellence, rather than failure, and to work to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn rigorous and meaningful mathematics.

Benjamin Bannekar’s 1975 Almanac

The existence of this website helped to reframe for me and many others the truth of Black excellence in mathematics. It made visible people that were in many ways invisible to the canon of mathematical thought and production in the United States and around the world.

MAD’s importance as an educational tool must also be acknowledged. It is here that someone can get pleasantly lost exploring intriguing historical developments, as well as learning about the range of areas of mathematics study. For many of the profiles, there were compelling stories told by mathematicians about their early lives, which for me spurred new ideas about how we develop as ‘mathematical persons’.  It has spawned research on deeper understanding of the role of family members in mathematicians’ development, for example. (So many mathematicians tell stories about uncles and aunts exposing them to mathematics!). It is here where one can see the impact of particular institutions, which over generations demonstrate an admirable capacity to develop, hone, and support mathematicians’ talents. And it is here where one can trace the influence of influential mentors and teachers, who direct and affect the careers of their students and their students’ students.

Without MAD, it would have been much harder to engage in my major program of research that has emerged over the last decade. It, for many years until very recently, was the only place where one could look up the term “Black mathematician” and see that there were numerous people who fit that description. Although we don’t have empirical evidence about how many schoolchildren and other students used the website for research of this type, I suspect that it was a substantial number.

With the new MAD website it is my hope that the spirit of MAD lives on – as an important living and breathing space for the documentation of historical and contemporary events that captures the essence of the triumphs and travails of Black mathematicians in the US and around the world.  And I hope we are able to capture impressions of who visits the website, and why.  As a teaching tool about mathematics, history, the meanings of what it is to be a mathematician, and how to inspire others to participate in the world of mathematics MAD is unparalleled. It has significant interdisciplinary reach—addressing those with interests in history, sociology, policy as well as mathematics. Professor Scott Williams has done a great service for all of us in mathematics and mathematics education—and beyond—with this incredible resource.

Erica N Walker
Professor of Mathematics Education
Teachers College, Columbia University

===================

[1] Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website [On-line]. Available: http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/myths_lies.html

[2] ibid

[3] The Measure of Intelligence, Lewis Terman.  The Riverside Press, 1916.  Available: https://psychaanalyse.com/pdf/THE_MEASUREMENT_OF_INTELLIGENCE.pdf

[4] Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit, The New Press, 2012.

[Editor’s note: Readers will also want to explore Mathematically Gifted & Black: http://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/]

Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences

This entry was posted in history of mathematics, introduction, mathematics experiences, minorities in math, racism, STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Existence Proof: The Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website

  1. Tom says:

    Great. I didn’t know about the new website always visited the good old MAD site

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