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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

African American Mathematicians: Elbert Frank Cox

Elbert Frank Cox, born in 1895, Broke down one of the most important barriers for African Americans living in America before the Civil Rights Movement when he became the first African American person to earn a PhD. Elbert overcame great challenges due to racism, and strived to reduce the education gap between minorities and white men that was curated by a brutal system of inequality. Second to his passion for mathematics was his desire to learn about the world around him, and to teach others about that beautiful world. 
Elbert Cox in his graduation gown.
As a young boy, Elbert was no stranger to segregation. He grew up going to an all black school that was located in a racially mixed neighborhood, a combination that bread more turmoil than peace, but his father, a principal at a local school, was keen on teaching the growing kid the importance of education. In high school, Elbert showed a keen understanding of math and physics, and was directed to further his math career at the University of Indiana.
While in college, Elbert was a great student, and showed interest in physics, chemistry, biology, Philosophy, Latin, German, and English. With this intense course load, he kept himself bust until he graduated with a degree in mathematics along with three other African American students.  In 1917, Elbert put his career on hold when he was shipped to France to fight in World War 1.  When he returned, Elbert taught math at a high school in Kentucky until 1921, when he decided to apply for the graduate program at Cornell.
While studying difference equations for his thesis, Elbert met William Lloyd Garrison, who would become his thesis advisor.  As a graduate student, Elbert began teaching classes at Shaw University, and showed an immense capacity to teach well. Elbert grew closer to William, who also was a journalist with a drive to bring equality to the United States. As Elbert was finishing up his dissertation, William urged him to publish his PhD thesis in another country so that his claim as the first black person in the world to gain a PhD would be recognized. 
Elbert then went on to continue teaching, and served as a professor at West Virginia State University for four years, then moved to Howard University where his legacy began to take shape. At Howard, Elbert was the head chairman of the board of mathematics, and did what he could to put a PhD program into place.

Elbert Frank Cox died in 1969, and was unable to see the inauguration of Howard University’s PhD program, but was honored with the beginning of the Elbert F Cox Scholarship Fund that would help many under-privileged people get a college education.


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