Where Are All The Black Mathematicians? On The Web!

Release Date: April 23, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Scott Williams doesn't teach mathematics to African-American children, but several thousand of them have learned from him lessons that they will keep for the rest of their lives.

He knows because he hears from them in e-mail messages, several a day, that come in responding to his unique Web site, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora (MAD) at http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/mad0.html

Williams, a professor of mathematics at the University at Buffalo, developed the site after finding that another Internet site dedicated to African-American scientists had plenty of listings under the life sciences and engineering, but very few mathematicians.

"They had two," he recalled.

Williams wrote to the site creators, pointing out that he personally knew of more than 40 African or African-American mathematicians, but when they simply added his name to the list, he decided to start his own site.

Since it first went on-line last May, it has had more than 17,000 visits, many of them from school children -- and their teachers -- who write Williams thanking him for the site.

"I often hear from kids for whom being the only black around -- in school or in the neighborhood -- is hard," he said. "I thought that if they could see that many other people have been in that position and done quite successfully in life, it could be useful."

Williams knows what it is to be the only black; besides being the only African-American professor in his department, he was the only black studying math in graduate school; in fact, there were only five African-Americans in the whole university.

"There was no such thing as a community of African-Americans there," he said, "it was a shock to my system."

While Williams earned his doctorate in 1969, many African-Americans continue to have similar experiences, almost 30 years later.

He recently heard from a graduate student in mathematics who said she was the only black in her program.

"She was just overwhelmed when she saw my Web site," said Williams. "I often hear from black graduate students who are surprised that the tradition of blacks in mathematics is so rich."

The site's pages include a modern history of blacks in mathematics, including a time line of significant dates, a listing of black research mathematicians (now up to 280), profiles of black mathematicians (about 70 so far), and black mathematicians outside of North America and in ancient Africa.

Also included is an article about Benjamin Banneker, considered the first African-American mathematician. He was appointed by President George Washington to a three-person team to survey the future District of Columbia, working closely with Pierre L'Enfant.

Links from the site include others of interest to African-Americans in the sciences and education, national organizations, such as the Committee for African-American Research in Mathematics, as well as information about people who have had a positive impact on African-American mathematicians.

As the site's popularity has grown in the African-American, educational and mathematics communities, Williams has begun receiving messages from people who know of mathematicians who they hope will be added.

The sole criterion is that the person hold a doctorate in mathematics.

"I even hear from families of dead mathematicians," said Williams. "They are so excited to hear that someone regards their relative as having done something important."

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