5 Black Mathematicians Who Made History: A Look at the Contributions of Black Innovators in Math

black mathematicians

Black History Month is a great opportunity to educate your students on the accomplishments of Black mathematicians and their impact on not only the academic world, but also on society as a whole. In this article, we will examine the careers of five ground-breaking black mathematicians who made a significant impact on the field of mathematics.

Five Influential Black Mathematicians

Marjorie Lee Browne Ph.D.

One of the pioneers among Black women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics is Marjorie Lee Browne. Born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 9, 1914 to Mary Taylor Lee and Lawrence Johnson Lee, Marjorie was encouraged by her stepmother and father to pursue her interests in mathematics. After completing her public school education in Memphis, she graduated from Howard University in 1935.

Marjorie went on to earn her M.S. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1939 and joined the faculty at a college in Marshall, Texas, where she began work on her doctoral dissertation. She earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1949 and became one of the first Black women to receive a doctorate in the field. Evelyn Boyd Granville and Euphemia Lofton Haynes were also among the first Black women to earn Ph.Ds in Mathematics, receiving theirs in 1949 and 1943 from Yale University and Catholic University of America, respectively. In 1951, Marjorie became the Chairperson of the Mathematics Department and held the position until her resignation in 1970.

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Throughout her career, Marjorie received several accolades, including being the first recipient of the W.W. Rankin Memorial Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education, awarded by the North Carolina Council of Teachers in Mathematics. The award citation reads, “She pioneered in the Mathematics Section of the North Carolina Teachers Association, helping to pave the way for integrated organizations.” If you’re looking for an engaging way to introduce Marjorie Lee Browne to your students, check out this fun carousel about her life.

Dudley Weldon Woodard

Dudley Weldon Woodard, also known as the “Mathematician of the African Diaspora,” made history by earning his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928, becoming only the second African-American to do so. His reputation as one of the most respected and influential Black mathematicians of all time is well-deserved, as he made numerous contributions to the field through published research papers, a long career of teaching, and mentoring many students.

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Woodard used the phrase “Black is Beautiful” in the 1930s and refused to let segregation limit his experiences. He used any restroom, ate at any restaurant, and attended any theater of his choice in New York. He even moved his family into a previously all-white neighborhood because of its beauty and proximity to Howard University, where he was chair of the Mathematics department for a quarter-century.

David Blackwell 

A pioneering figure in the field, David Blackwell is widely considered one of the most influential Black mathematicians of all time. With a Ph.D. in mathematics and numerous accomplishments, he made seminal contributions to game theory, probability theory, and Bayesian statistics. Notable among his accolades is his induction into the National Academy of Science, making him the first African-American to be honored with this distinction. He also holds the distinction of being the seventh African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics.

ByteLearn Classroom Tip – While you’re looking at some of the most influential black mathematicians, here’s a fun video you can show your students in your classroom. A big shoutout to Jimmy Pascascio and LaMar Queen, two middle school teachers in South Los Angeles, and making some great content for students! Be sure to check them out!

Dr. Gladys West 

Gladys Mae West, a renowned American mathematician, was born in Sutherland, Virginia, a rural county located south of Richmond. She came from an African-American farming family, but she chose a different path for herself. Rather than work on her family’s farm or in a tobacco factory, she pursued education, which she saw as the key to success. With the help of a scholarship, she earned her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in mathematics from Virginia State College.

Her hard work and determination paid off when she made a monumental contribution to developing the satellite geodesy models that we now know as the Global Positioning System (GPS). Throughout her career, Dr. West continued to learn and grow, and her dedication to her work resulted in her playing a crucial role in one of the greatest inventions of all time.

Clarence Francis Stephens

Clarence Francis Stephens was a trailblazer in the world of mathematics, defying the odds and rising above racial discrimination. Stephens was dedicated to the belief that every student had the ability to learn mathematics, and he pursued this philosophy throughout his career as a researcher and teacher.

With his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, Stephens devoted himself to educating students and sharing his love for the subject. He was recognized for his exceptional talent and contributions with the “Mathematically Gifted and Black” award during Black History Month in 2018. Through his unwavering commitment and passion, Stephens left a lasting legacy in the world of mathematics.


Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans, including those in the field of mathematics. From Dudley Weldon Woodard, who was the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, to David Blackwell, the first African-American to be inducted into the National Academy of Science, these mathematicians left a lasting legacy. Dr. Gladys Mae West, who developed the foundation for the Global Positioning System (GPS), and Clarence Francis Stephens, who taught mathematics to students and believed in the potential of every student to learn, also made significant contributions to the field. These mathematicians serve as inspirations and role models for students and educators alike.

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