Feb. 28, 2002

Math department honors CU pioneer Elbert Cox, first black math Ph.D.

Elbert Cox
Reprinted by permission of the AMS
Elbert Cox, circa 1925, from "A Century of Mathematics in America, Part III," (American Mathematical Society, Providence: 1989).

In 1917 three young men graduated from Indiana University with the word "Colored" emblazoned across their academic transcripts. One of them, Elbert Frank Cox, would go on to enter Cornell and become the first black man in history to receive a doctorate in pure mathematics and the first African American to be inducted into the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

Cox's achievements were exceptional, especially for his time. In 1925 -- the year he graduated from Cornell -- only 28 doctoral degrees were awarded in mathematics in the entire nation, and up until that year, fewer than 50 African Americans had received doctorates of any kind.

Cornell's Department of Mathematics has been honoring Cox this February -- Black History Month -- as a pioneer and a key figure in the history of American mathematics. By becoming only the second black student to receive a doctorate in any subject from Cornell (Thomas Wyatt Turner, who received his Ph.D. in biology in 1921, was the first), Cox helped to open the door for other black doctoral candidates.

In a letter to mathematics librarian Steven Rockey, Charles W. Carrey Jr., a scholar researching Cox's life and work, notes that partly thanks to Cox's pioneering Ph.D., by1943 another 23 African Americans had received doctorates from Cornell. That number included seven who received their degrees in either mathematics or physics. "His accomplishment helped to make it possible for other black mathematicians, such as Dudley Welcon Woodard, William Waldron Shiefflin Claytor, Marjorie Lee Brown, Evelyn Boyd Granville and David Blackwell, to receive their doctorates from American universities," Carrey wrote.

Yet Cox, who died in 1969, received little recognition during his lifetime, even from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he spent most of his career, according to James Donaldson of Howard and Richard Fleming of Central Michigan University, who co-authored a biography of Cox that appeared in American Mathematical Monthly (February 2000).

Cox was born Dec. 5, 1895, in Evansville, Ind., to Johnson D. Cox, a high school principal, and his wife, Eugenia. As a young man, he was a talented violinist and passed up a scholarship at the Prague Conservatory of Music to pursue a bachelor's degree at Indiana University. He was an adept student, earning an A in every mathematics course he took.

After graduation, Cox enlisted in the army and was stationed in France, rising to the rank of sergeant. Following his discharge, he took a position as a professor of physics, chemistry and biology at Shaw University, a black university and secondary school in Raleigh, N.C. In 1922 he left Shaw to enroll at Cornell, where he was awarded a graduate scholarship in mathematics and an Erastus Brooks Fellowship. He spent the fall semester of 1924 as a traveling fellow at McGill University in Montreal to work with William Lloyd Garrison Williams, a former Cornell professor who was his dissertation committee chairman.

After earning his doctorate, Cox accepted a position at the West Virginia Colored Institute, a Negro Land Grant College, becoming only the second faculty member to hold a Ph.D. He taught mathematics and physics at the college and undertook a substantial revision of the math and physics curricula. At a time when most college and university professors did not have doctoral degrees, Cox not only possessed some of the most impressive credentials of any mathematician of his generation, but had studied and exchanged ideas with an international community of preeminent mathematicians,

In 1927 Cox married Beulah Kaufman, an elementary school teacher and the daughter of a former slave. The couple had three sons, James, Eugene and Elbert.

In 1929, Cox's career led him to Howard, then, as today, one of the most prestigious of the historically black colleges and a magnet for black scholars. Cox was to remain on the Howard faculty until his retirement in 1966.

Cox published only two papers during his lifetime, one of which was his doctoral thesis. This was not unusual for mathematicians of his time, when less emphasis was placed on research and publication than it is today. As the American Mathematical Monthly article observes, African-American academics of that era did not have the opportunity to work at research universities and benefit from their encouragement and support for research and publication. "The heavy workloads and lack of nancial support in the historically black colleges made it nearly impossible to carry on any type of research program and produce publications needed to achieve a scientic reputation," the article notes.

Even professional organizations, such as the AMS and the Mathematical Association of America, were less than inviting to African Americans during much of Cox's career, Donaldson wrote in the AMS's four-volume series, A Century of Mathematics in America. Although the professional societies had African-American members, it was difficult and unpleasant for them to attend meetings, especially as they were frequently not permitted to attend social events or to lodge at the hotels and convention centers where the meetings were held, he wrote. Cox allowed his membership in the AMS to lapse shortly after becoming the organization's first African-American member in 1925, and did not renew it again until 1948. However, he held a membership in Beta Kappa Chi, a black scientific fraternity, which allowed him to maintain contact with the scientific community.

Cox was a dedicated teacher who challenged his students to excel. "Year after year, our master's students consistently did much better in departmental oral examinations on material they'd studied with Cox than on material they'd studied with me or from our colleagues Woodward, Claytor, and others," Blackwell was quoted as saying in the American Mathematical Monthly article. At Cox's retirement, Howard University's president noted that the mathematician had supervised more masters' theses than any other member of the faculty.