I would describe my life, including my entry into the profession, as being characterized by my coming of age on the right side of several transition points from the totally segregated society in which I grew up to the quasi-open society in which we now live.
I grew up in Alice, Texas, where I attended an all-black two-room schoolhouse with four grades to a room. There was a new elementary school within a stone’s throw of my house, but it was restricted to whites and Hispanics. I walked six blocks past the new school to attend my two-room school. One advantage of the small school was that the teachers knew the students very well. As a result of my grandfather’s having taught me to read, I skipped two grades. I had also learned some mathematics from him and did well in that, too.
When I entered high school, I was lucky enough to be affected by another transition event in American history: the Russians launched Sputnik. There was a significant amount of effort put into improving science education in this country. One of the high school teachers in Alice, Larry O’Rear, returned to the University of Texas, Austin, for further training in science and mathematics. When he returned to Alice, he offered enriched courses, which I took to further my education in mathematics. And, he recommended me to his teacher at the University of Texas, Dr. H. B. Curtis, when I received a National Merit Scholarship, which could be held anywhere.
I attended college at the University of Texas, which had “integrated” in the 1950s. Integrated must be in quotes because dorms, sports, and most aspects of campus life were still segregated. This experience grated me and other black students. We paid the same fees as everyone else, but were denied access to certain facilities that our money supported. We protested to no avail.
The real head of the pure math department was Robert Lee Moore. He was a well-known topologist, inventor of an unusual teaching method, “the Moore method,” which stresses self-learning. One is not allowed to read books. Everything is learned from first principles. The method had been very successful in producing mathematicians and has been much emulated. After I arrived at Texas and learned of his prestige (and before I became identified as a third-floor student), I thought of taking one of his courses. An older black student, Walker Hunt, told me he talked to Moore about taking a course with him. Moore told Walker that he was welcome to take his course but that he would start with a C and could only go down from there.
I was affected by another transition in American society when I was ready to begin graduate school. Rice University in Houston was a private university, which was for white citizens of Texas, according to its founder’s will. It had broken the limitation to citizens of Texas years before, and as I prepared to graduate from college in 1963, it had decided to break the part of the will limiting access to whites. Dr. Curtis had his Ph.D. from Rice and he recommended that I attend there. In addition, he was going to spend the next year at Rice on sabbatical, which would help ease my transition. I applied, was admitted, and just as I was ready to enter in the summer, the university announced its change of policy. Two alumni sued. As a result I spent a year as a research associate, but eventually the university won and I was admitted as a regular student in 1964. I nearly left after my first year, but I stayed and learned recently that I was the first African-American to graduate from Rice.
Finally, the last transition occurred as I finished graduate school. I did not know it then, but I became the first African-American (actually African anything) to be appointed in the mathematics department at the University of Maryland, College Park. I was promoted though the ranks at Maryland, surviving long enough to become the African-American faculty member with the longest tenure at College Park and chair of the mathematics department from 1991 to 1996.
While I was chair, I helped with the recruitment of African-Americans into and their graduation from the graduate mathematics program at College Park. We became concerned that accurate information was not always reaching our black students and initiated monthly meetings to expose them to professionals in mathematics. In addition, we would provide feedback on what the department intended by policy changes we were instituting. As a result of our efforts, 10 of the 20 or so students we recruited have received doctorates, including the first three African-American women to earn doctorates from the mathematics department. I am extremely proud of this accomplishment!
Contact Information. For further information, please e-mail Professor Johnson at [email protected] This article is modeled after a biography available on the University of Maryland mathematics department Web site.