Question of the Month
The First African American to Earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics
Q: Black History Month celebrates the same persons, over and again, ad nauseum. Is there someone you would like to see included?
-- Beverly Dalton, Los Angeles, California
A: Elbert F. Cox was born and raised in a college town in a racially mixed neighborhood, but at segregated schools. In fact his father, a school principal, had graduated from Evansville College and had done graduate work at Indiana University. Close knit and highly religious, the Cox family had a respect for learning that reflected the father's educational career. When young Elbert demonstrated unusual ability in high school mathematics and physics, he was directed toward Indiana University.
Elbert Cox earned his A.B. at Indiana University in 1917. Along with the three other African American graduates of Indiana that year, Cox had COLORED (the public description for African Americans) printed across his transcript. After serving in the U.S. Army in France during World War I, he returned to pursue a career in teaching, as an instructor of mathematics at a high school in Henderson, Kentucky. In December of 1921 he applied for admission to Cornell University, one of seven American universities with a doctoral program in mathematics. One of his references wrote a positive letter followed by another letter anticipating "... certain difficulties for the young man because of the fact he is of the colored race." So Cox joined the faculty of Shaw University.
Cox was awarded an Erastus Brooks Fellowship in September 1922, and he enrolled in Cornell University. When Cox's thesis advisor William Lloyd Garrison Williams (also founder of the Canadian Mathematical Society) realized that Cox had the chance to be recognized not only as the first Black in the United States, but as the first Black in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, he urged his student to send his thesis to a university in another country so that Cox's status in this regard would not be disputed. Universities in England and Germany turned Cox down (possibly for reasons of race), but Japan's Imperial University of San Dei accepted the dissertation. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics (Cornell University, 1925), just 39 years after Cornell gave its first Ph.D. in Mathematics (1886).
In September, 1925, Cox became the head of the mathematics and physics department at West Virginia State College. He stayed there four years and in 1929 moved to Howard University. Cox remained at Howard until his retirement in 1965 and served as chairman of the Mathematics Department from 1957-1961. In 1975 the Howard University Mathematics Department at the time of the inauguration of the Ph.D. program, established the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund for undergraduate mathematics majors to encourage young Black students to study mathematics at the graduate level.
His Ph.D. at this time was remarkable, as no place or institution was a friend to Negroes. Indeed, there were just 28 Ph.D.'s in Mathematics awarded in all the country in 1925, but 31 black men were lynched that year. For many years Dr. Cox taught at Howard University (1929-1961) along with the second and third African American Mathematics Ph.D., Dudley Woodard and Walter Claytor, and later with mathematicians George Butcher and David Blackwell. Thus, Howard really led the Historically Black College's and Universities as the principle place of learning. This strength readily incorporated a graduate mathematics program at Howard.
Elbert Cox married Beulah P. Kaufman, an elementary school teacher, on September 14, 1927. They had three sons, James, Eugene, and Elbert. After a brief illness, Cox died at Cafritz Memorial Hospital on November 28, 1969. In 1980, the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) honored Cox with the inauguration of the Cox-Talbot Address which is given annually at NAM's National Meeting.
References: By far, the best reference is the 24 page biography recently published by J. Donaldson and R. Fleming in the American Mathematical Monthly and we used it to significantly update this page. These notes were originally based upon [Donaldson], [Giles], [Newell, [Taylor], and ["Dr. Elbert F. Cox, 73, Howard U. Professor." Obituary. The Washington Post (December 2, 1969): C6.].
SUMMA Elbert Cox web page: http://www.maa.org/summa/archive/Cox_EF.htm
June 2006 response by Dr. Scott Williams, University of Buffalo, The State University of New York