Erased from the Equation: Black Mathematicians in the South

Feb 13, 2024 3:47:58 PM


In the annals of mathematical history, there lies a largely untold narrative: the contributions of Black mathematicians in the southern United States. History matters in math, and this editorial seeks to illuminate the stories of forgotten scholastic trailblazers and current titans in their fields, address the systemic barriers they faced, and celebrate their indelible impact on mathematics. 

It is an exploration of talent, resilience, and Black math genius that flourished despite the harsh realities of racial segregation and discrimination. Additionally, it’s an act of defiance against cultural erasure perpetuated by the governors attempting to ban Black intellect in states like Florida and Texas.

The accurate narrative of Black mathematicians in the southern states is an extraordinary triumph against daunting challenges. In an era dominated by segregation laws, African Americans were not only socially ostracized but also intellectually marginalized. Barred from many educational institutions and professional opportunities, these heroes persisted and made groundbreaking contributions to mathematics.

  • Dr. Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid: Born in Hampton, Virginia, but with significant ties to Texas, Bharucha-Reid moved mathematics forward in probability and statistics. He was known for his work on random polynomials and Markov processes.
  • Dr. Melba Roy Mouton: His work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as a mathematician and computer programmer had a significant impact. She played a crucial role in tracking Echo satellites and Apollo missions.
  • Dr. Richard A. Tapia: A prominent figure in numerical optimization, Tapia has been a long-time professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has been influential in increasing diversity in the mathematical and scientific communities.
  • Dr. Abdulalim A. Shabazz: Born in Florida, Dr. Shabazz was a prolific mathematician and educator. He made significant contributions to the field of biomathematics and was a strong advocate for minority education in mathematics and the sciences.
  • Dr. Angela E. Grant: Originally from Florida, she has been recognized for her work in mathematics education, focusing on increasing the participation and success of underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
  • Dr. Johnella V. Butler: A scholar with West Virginia roots, Dr. Butler was known for her contributions to mathematics education, particularly in promoting equity and access for underrepresented higher-education students.
  • Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes: Originally from Texas, she is one of the first African American women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics and work as a professor at Baylor University. 
  • Dr. Rudy Horne: He’s a mathematician from Georgia known for his work in theoretical physics and his contributions to the movie "Hidden Figures," highlighting the role of African American women mathematicians at NASA.

These mathematicians, among others, have made indelible marks in their respective fields, and their stories are a testament to Black mathematicians' intellectual prowess and resilience. Their achievements inspire and influence current and future generations of mathematicians. It's imperative that we bolster the confidence of young students because what we think of our math ability matters

The educational journey of Black mathematicians often begins within the supportive yet under-resourced confines of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These institutions, pillars of intellectual growth amidst a racially divided society, were pivotal in nurturing the talents of Black mathematicians. However, their significant contributions were forged against a backdrop of systemic inequities, particularly in terms of resources and funding when compared to predominantly white institutions.

These mathematicians, among others, emerged from the challenging environments of HBCUs with an unwavering determination to excel in their field. Their achievements are not just personal triumphs but symbolic victories over a system designed to limit their potential.

Their legacies are a powerful reminder of the difficult struggle to overcome systemic educational barriers that often leave Black mathematicians standing alone in a room.

Their stories highlight the urgency of ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities in the academic world. The stories of these mathematicians are pivotal in understanding the collective struggle for educational equity and the recognition of diverse intellectual contributions in mathematics.

Their achievements inspire current and future generations, echoing the necessity for a more inclusive and equitable educational landscape.

Dr. Assata Moore

Assata Moore is educator and author who advocates for educating young Black children, using math as the driving force. She believes in the supreme intelligence of Black children because she has seen it time and time again. As a teacher and principal, she traveled the world teaching other teachers how to teach Mathematics, physics, and engineering in a fun and engaging way; effective leadership; and systems and strategies for running a successful school. She has a Mathematics degree from Michigan State University where she also served as the program coordinator. In 2009, she was voted one of the top Mathematics teachers in the state of Illinois and, under the Obama Administration, Assata received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. In 2015, under the direction of Michelle Obama, she revisited the White House for a college conference initiative. Her workshops and speaking engagements are what she calls, “EduAction”. You will be educated and you will put that learning into action.

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