Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Honor of Black History

On my other blog, I'm doing a series on African-American picture books. On this blog, I'd like to tell you the story of a Black mathematician.

Years ago, I wrote an essay on Vivienne Malone Mayes, for a course in African American history. As I looked around online today, I came upon a sad facet of her story, which will remind us that racism is hardly overcome. The Black Women in Mathematics page on her describes her experience at the University of Texas, in her PhD program:
In graduate school she was very much alone... In her first class, she was the only Black, the only woman. Her classmates ignored her completely, even terminating conversations if she came within earshot. She was denied a teaching assistantship, although she was an experienced ... and excellent teacher. She wrote: "I could not join my advisor and other classmates to discuss mathematics over coffee at Hilsberg's cafe.... Hilsberg's would not serve Blacks. Occasionally, I could get snatches of their conversation as they crossed our picket line outside the cafe." She could not enroll in professor R.L. Moore's class as he explicitly stated that he did not teach Blacks.
Part of the significance of this is R.L. Moore's fame as a math educator. The 'Moore Method', whereby his students did not use textbooks and provided all the proofs in class, is famous, in part because more mathematicians came out of his program than typically come through any one teacher. So his personal racism is all the more abhorrent.

My essay retold what I learned from Women In Mathematics: The Addition of Difference, by Claudia Henrion. This book contains interviews with both Vivienne Malone Mayes and Fern Hunt, both Black mathematicians. Both interviews point out the advantages of Black colleges, either studying at a Black college, as Malone-Mayes did, or working at one, as Hunt did.

Vivienne Malone Mayes went to Fisk University in Tennessee, and earned both her B.A. and M.A. there. She returned to Waco, and ended up teaching at Bishop College, a small Black college nearby. For years she had encouraged her better students to go on to get doctorates, so that they could come back and teach in the Black colleges, which would help the colleges to become accredited. Her students finally persuaded her to follow her own advice. There were no Black colleges in Texas that offered Ph.D’s, so she applied to Baylor University in Waco. In 1961, she was denied admission there because they did not admit Blacks. She then applied to the University of Texas at Austin, was admitted, and earned her Ph.D. in 1966. Five years after refusing her admittance as a student, Baylor University offered her a position as a professor, which she accepted.

When Vivienne started college at Fisk, her major was chemistry. But two of her teachers there inspired her love of mathematics, and so she switched her major, did graduate work, and became a college teacher herself. This switch was seen by her family as quite impractical, but Fisk had already been influencing her thought in other ways, so that she would say “we were DuBoisites”. (A huge influence in her life, her father’s history, views, and advice reflected the philosophy of Booker T. Washington - get the training that will get you work.)

The two teachers who encouraged her to enter the study of mathematics were Evelyn Boyd Granville and Lee Lorch. “Evelyn Boyd Granville was one of the first Black women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics in the United States.” (p.200) Seeing another Black woman doing mathematics was important in giving Malone Mayes the confidence that she, too, could do this. Lee Lorch was a white teacher who (in Malone Mayes’ words) “believed that the students could understand the material, not just learn to do it”. (Lorch was white, but his commitment to interracial equality was clear. He was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his actions in support of integration, and subsequently lost his position at Fisk because of this.)

Malone Maye’s goals as a teacher were first, to support and respect her students so they would begin to have a sense of self-worth, second, to give them the tools of self-empowerment, and third, to create a path of opportunity - in math, the answers are right or wrong, when you know what you’re talking about, it’s clear, so she felt that her students would face less discrimination in this field.

Malone Mayes was paid substantially less than her similarly qualified colleagues at Baylor. She sued, received a $5000 raise, and was still $7000 below her colleagues. Her health deteriorated over the years, partly due to the stresses of her work at Baylor, and she died in 1995, at the age of 63.


  1. Thanks for this post, I came to your site from a link on Psych Today.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment, Zavi. It's nice to know someone enjoyed this one.

  3. Came across your site today and thought you'd be interested in this link. My daughter did a report for black history month on Katherine G. Johnson and when "computers wore skirts."


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