9 Great African-American Mathematicians That Changed the World

PLUS 8 Black History Month classroom activities for students

Celebrating black history and honoring the achievements of African Americans this month wouldn’t be complete without giving proper due to nine brilliant mathematicians who broke barriers, made incredible strides, left an indelible mark in STEM, and created a legacy of math-mindedness that helped guide us to where we are today.


1. Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Benjamin Banneker, born in 1731 and a descendent of African slaves, was a self-taught scientist, mathematician, farmer, astronomer, urban planner—you name it! In 1792, Banneker published the first of eight almanacs, based on his own painstakingly calculated ephemeris (table of the position of celestial bodies), which also included commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose.

2. Elbert Cox

Elbert Cox
Source: Wikipedia

Elbert Cox was not only the first black person in the United States to receive a PhD in mathematics, but he was the first in the world! He earned a PhD in mathematics from Cornell University in 1925, and then went on to teach math for 40 years.

3. Dudley Weldon Woodard

Source: Wikipedia

Dudley Weldon Woodard, born on October 3, 1881 in Galveston, Texas, stood up for civil rights long before Martin Luther King, Jr. made it acceptable. He ignored segregation signs, went into any men’s restroom of his choice, and moved into an all-white community. In 1928, he received his PhD in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania, making him the second African-American to earn a PhD in mathematics.

4. Euphemia Lofton Haynes

Euphemia Lofton Haynes
Source: Agness Scott College

Euphemia Lofton Haynes became the first African-American woman, and the ninth African-American, to earn a PhD in mathematics. She received hers from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1943. Dr. Haynes then taught in the D.C. school system, and was the first woman to chair the D.C. School Board!

5. Charles Lewis Reason

Charles Lewis Reason
Source: Dickinson College

Charles Lewis Reason became the first African-American university professor at a predominantly white college in the U.S., teaching at New York Central College from 1949 to 1952. His first teaching job was teaching children at the African Free School in New York City, at age 14! His salary: $25 per year.

6. Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson
Source: NASA

Katherine Johnson is still making history at 97 years old! Her work as a physicist and mathematician at NASA’s Langley Research Center spanned from 1953 to 1986, and included calculating the trajectory of the early space launches.

7. Annie Easley

Annie Easley
Source: Wikipedia

Few people have the brilliance to be a mathematician and a computer scientist. To top it off, Annie Easley was a rocket scientist! She spent 34 years (1955 to 1985) at NASA, and was influential in making modern space travel possible. She was a leading member of the team that developed software for the Centaur rocket stage, and one of the first African-Americans in her field. Easley’s secret to success? Her mother told her that anything was possible.

8. David Harold Blackwell

David Harold Blackwell
Source: University of Buffalo

David Harold Blackwell, born in Centralia, Illinois in 1938, was the seventh African-American to receive a PhD in mathematics and was a beloved statistics professor at University of California, Berkley. He was the first and only African-American to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, President of the American Statistical Society, and a Vice President of the America Mathematics Society.

9. Marjorie Lee Browne

Marjorie Lee Browne
Source: Wikipedia

Born in Tennessee in 1914, Marjorie Lee Browne became the third African-American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. In 1960, Browne set up an electronic digital computer center at North Carolina College, one of the first of its kind at a minority college.

8 Newsworthy STEM Classroom Activities for Black History Month

1. Bringing Black History Month to STEM Classrooms

Get the scoop: Here’s a comprehensive article from Education Week Teacher on the importance of providing inspiring role models for African-American students, and other minorities, who are sorely under-represented in STEM fields. The piece includes some great resources for learning about black scientists, mathematicians and engineers throughout history.

Extra! Extra! Check out this interesting lesson plan on bioethics that uses the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Ms. Lacks’ cell were harvested after her death, without her family’s consent or knowledge, and have been used in the development of many medical advancements.

2. Timeline of Black Women in Mathematics

Get the scoop: Who are the first 20 African-American women to earn a PhD in Mathematics and what are their accomplishments? Find out here!  

Extra! Extra! Read all about dozens of African-American women in mathematics who are currently making news in this glossary of bios.

3. African-American Firsts in Science and Medicine

Get the scoop: Biography.com has put together a great collection of photos and bio, as well as video interviews. Print out posters to decorate your classroom with these historic black men and women who pioneered various fields of science and medicine.

Extra! Extra! Check out this video interview with author Octavia E. Butler, a science fiction writer who broke boundaries for African-American women in literature.

4. Activity: Beat the Motion Sensor

Get the scoop: Young architects-in-the-making will take a shine to this classroom activity inspired by African-American inventor Clarence L. Elders. His energy-conserving motion detectors are found in most modern offices and schools. This is a Black History Month lesson for grades 7-9.

Extra! Extra! Read all about these hands-on STEM activities for Black History Month on the Engineering, Go for it! website.  

5. Black Inventors Online Museum

Get the scoop: Visiting this website is like going on a class field trip without leaving the room! You’ll find photos and information about a broad collection of black inventors:
Lewis Latimer invented a better light bulb, Fred Jones developed a refrigeration system for trucks, and Madam C.J. Walker who created a black hair products empire—just to name a few.

Extra! Extra! Check out the top ten black inventors, all of whom used STEM skills!

6. African-American Pioneer Aviators

Get the scoop: The Smithsonian has put together a variety of lesson plans for Black History Month. In this lesson, students examine photographs and biographies to learn about the history of African Americans in the field of aviation, and portray these adventurers through drawing, painting, or writing. Separate lessons for grades K–2, 3–5, and 6–8. Students portray the aviators in drawing, painting, or writing for integrated Black History Month curriculum.

Extra! Extra! The Smithsonian’s IdeaLabs gives teachers more great lesson plans to explore the world we live in—and beyond—using STEM concepts.   

7. Fact Monster

Get the scoop: Busy teachers will love this one-stop resource for Black History Month activities. You’ll find quizzes, timelines, crosswords puzzles, statistics and special features all focused on Black History Month. There’s plenty for your STEM curriculum and other lesson plans.

Extra! Extra! Check out this Black History Month quiz that’s chockfull of STEM heroes!

8. Kid Activities

Get the scoop: Great Black History Month ideas and resources for grades K-5. Students can make peanut butter to celebrate George Washington Carver’s life, write a letter to a historic figure, or a create a bulletin board collage of photos of black inventors, mathematicians and scientists. Dozens of ideas for Black History Month!

Extra! Extra! Encourage your students to find out more about African-American heroes—Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Harriett Tubman and more—with this book list for grades K-5.

Do you have more math activities for Black History Month? Share them below.



DreamBox Learning marketing team.

  • C Norslay

    Wow. I had never heard of these brilliant mathematicians until today. As of the time I’m writing this (4/15/13), at least one of these guys don’t even have a Wikipedia article! Their lives need to be celebrated more to encourage the young, black college students today to pursue majors in math and science more.