A few years ago I thought it was important to start teaching my students in my class about famous mathematicians. We spent a week researching, talking, poster-making. At the end of the unit I asked my students what all of these mathematicians had in common. The response on more than half of the feedback forms was “mathematicians are dead and white and men.” Ooof. Thank goodness for the unwavering honesty of junior high students!
Since then, I have tried to be much more mindful of the mathematicians I teach my students about. While some of them are dead and white and men, we also study living, non-white, female mathematicians. Yes! There are lots of them—they are not unicorns*!
*Although non-white mathematicians are not unicorns, they are certainly in the minority. While there are many theories about why this discrepancy exists, it is obvious that systemic racism is mostly to blame. For an account of one black research mathematician’s experience, read this New York Times article.
Here are some of the coolest black mathematicians you and your kids have probably never heard of, but totally need to know:
Dr. Cox was the first African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. He earned his degree in 1925 and taught at Howard University and West Virginia State University for 40 years. Unfortunately, there are not very many records of his early life and he was not asked to participate in many interviews while he was living. What makes Elbert cool? His bravery—he had to gain special permission to attend the University of Indiana to attain a degree. He also became a member of the prestigious Euclidean Circle, despite members’ objections to allowing a black member of the math club.
Tai-Danae is a 6th year PhD student at CUNY. She is well known for her blog math3ma.com, in which she uses words and pictures to explain complicated mathematical ideas. Bradley talks openly about the misconception that some people are born “math people” and some people just aren’t. What makes Tai-Danae cool? Well she’s starting a post-doc at X, the Moonshot Factory, in summer 2020 for one, but beyond that she’s open about the amount of work it takes to learn something new.
Kelvin is an inventor and innovator from Sierra Leone. He is most well known for this viral YouTube video, shot in 2012. He is also the youngest person ever invited to participate in MIT Visiting Practitioner Program (shown in the video). What makes Kelvin cool? His personality for sure — especially his radio personality, “DJ Focus.” Also, his inventiveness and desire to help improve the lives of people in Sierra Leone and around the world.
Johnson is one of the first African American women to work at NASA as a scientist. The children’s book “Counting on Katherine” details her life experience (Katherine was interviewed for this book). What makes Katherine cool? She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Obama in 2016 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019. On top of that, Katherine helped with calculations to send the first man to moon.
More Cool Mathematicians (Honorable Mention):
- John Urschel — NFL football player turned mathematician.
- Fern Hunt — Female research mathematician focused on encouraging black women to pursue STEM fields after high school.
- Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes — First black female to earn a PhD in mathematics.