Black History Month

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▬ Elbert Frank Cox

feb 15th: elbert frank cox

Elbert Frank Cox was born in Evansville, Indiana (December 1895). He was born in a racially mixed town but went to a segregated school. His father was the principal of one such school. Cox graduated with his A.B. in Indiana University (the same scool his father graduated from). He had a huge “COLORED’ sign stamped across the top of his transcript, as well as most of his important papers.

After serving in WWI, Elbert returned to become a high-school math teacher at a high school in Henderson, Kentucky. In December (1921) he applied for admission to Cornell University, one of the few American universities with a doctoral program in mathematics. Yet, because he was black, they did not accept him. So Cox joined the faculty of Shaw University.

Cox was awarded an Erastus Brooks Fellowship in September 1922, and he again enrolled in Cornell University. Cox’s thesis advisor William Lloyd Garrison Williams realized that Elbert had the chance to be recognized as the first black man in the United States, and in the entire world, to receive a Ph.D. He urged and encouraged his student to send his thesis to a university in another country so that his status as a black man would not be up for question.

Most universities in England and Germany turned Cox down (rumored race reasons), but Japan’s Imperial University of San Dei accepted the dissertation. He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics.

In September, 1925, Cox became the head of the mathematics and physics department at West Virginia State College. He stayed there four years. Cox moved to Howard University in 1929 until his retirement in 1965. He also served as chairmen 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.

This was a remarkable achievement, because at that time, there was no place for black people to get an education. There were just 28 Ph.D.’s in Mathematics awarded in the country (year: 1929) but 31 black men were lynched that year (many more that would have been considered a ‘suicide’.

Elbert Cox married Beulah P. Kaufman, an elementary school teacher. Together, they had three sons, James, Eugene, and Elbert. After a brief illness, Elbert 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.


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