Beating the odds, Elbert F. Cox became the first black man to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1925

Mildred Europa Taylor Feb 10, 2020 at 05:00pm

February 10, 2020 at 05:00 pm | History, Success Story

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

February 10, 2020 at 05:00 pm | History, Success Story

Elbert Frank Cox. Photo: Cornell Chronicle

Becoming the first black man in history to receive a doctorate in mathematics and the first African American to do so was an extraordinary feat for Elbert Frank Cox, considering the times.

In 1925, the year he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University, only 28 doctoral degrees had been awarded in mathematics in the U.S.

Records also pointed out that up until that year, only about 50 African Americans had received doctorates of any kind.

By becoming the second black student at the time to receive a doctorate in any subject from Cornell, Cox paved the way for other black people to become doctoral candidates while inspiring future black mathematicians.

Despite his immeasurable achievements, he did not receive much recognition during his lifetime, according to researchers.

Born December 5, 1895, in Evansville, Ind., Cox, who was a talented violinist, gained a scholarship at the Prague Conservatory of Music to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University. A brilliant student, Cox earned an A in every mathematics course he took, according to Cornell Chronicle.

When he graduated, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in France where he later rose to the rank of sergeant. After serving in the army, he became a professor of biology, physics, and chemistry at Shaw University, a black university and secondary school in Raleigh, N.C.

In 1922, Cox left Shaw to enroll at Cornell, after he was awarded a graduate scholarship in mathematics and an Erastus Brooks Fellowship. 

The year prior, he had applied for admission to Cornell, but accounts say “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.”

Moving to Cornell, Cox worked with William Lloyd Garrison Williams, a former Cornell professor who was his dissertation committee chairman.

After earning his doctorate, Cox taught mathematics and physics at the West Virginia Colored Institute before moving to Howard until his retirement in 1966.

But being an African-American academic came with its own challenges at the time. Lacking enough support for research and publication, Cox published only two papers during his lifetime, one of which was his doctoral thesis.

He was the first African American to be inducted into the American Mathematical Society (AMS) but professional organizations such as the AMS were not welcoming to African Americans in that period, making it difficult for Cox and others to attend meetings or social events.

That notwithstanding, Cox, at the time of his retirement from Howard, had supervised more masters’ theses than any other member of the faculty, according to accounts.

The husband and father of three would also encourage other black people to pursue degrees in mathematics and 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,” scholar Charles W. Carrey Jr., who researched Cox’s life and work, wrote.

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