Reuben Roosevelt McDaniel

Quick Info

27 July 1902
Fairfax, Virginia, USA
19 January 1975
Richmond, Virginia, USA

Reuben R McDaniel was the fifth African American to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics. He served most of his career at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), as head of mathematics, then as Director of the School of Arts and Sciences.


Reuben R McDaniel was the son of the African American farmer Birl McDaniel (1868-1937) and his wife Annie Turner (1868-1951). Birl McDaniel had born in Cedar Mountain, Culpeper, Virginia and had married Annie Turner in Orange County, Virginia on 21 June 1893. Birl and Annie McDaniel had six children, four girls and two boys: Lillie C McDaniel (1894-1973); Maria J McDaniel (1896-1943); John Amos McDaniel (1898-1971), who became a Government clerk; Mary Gertrude McDaniel (1899-1976); Eleanor Freeman McDaniel (1900-1986); and Reuben Roosevelt McDaniel (1902-1975), the subject of this biography.

Let us note at this point that there are various inconsistencies in the biographies of Reuben McDaniel. For example his date of death is given as 4 July 1974 in all the biographies we have seen, yet his death certificate available from [10] gives 19 January 1975 and his tombstone gives 19 January 1975. We will not list other inconsistencies but attempt to give as accurate information here as we can.

Reuben McDaniel attended Hughesville School in Centreville, Fairfax County. beginning his education there in 1909 [3]:-
By the early 20th century, the length of the school year for white children had been extended to six months, but the school year for African-American children was only five months long.
Minnie Beckwith Hughes (1871-1975) was the teacher at Hughesville School from 1911 to 1916 so she taught McDaniel for the last three of his five years at school. She had married Edward Hughes, who was also a teacher, in 1902. Both Edward and Minnie Hughes were the children of slaves. Minnie said [4]:-
During my career, I often thought of the lines: "I shot an arrow into the air. It fell to earth I know not where." A teacher daily shoots the arrow of knowledge and hopes it will find its mark in the hearts and minds of the students. Frequently the evidence of its having found its mark is not apparent for years.
This is an interesting comment since clearly one of her arrows found its mark with McDaniel. Let us note that, after Minnie Hughes left Hughesville School in 1916, Lillie C McDaniel, Reuben McDaniel's eldest sibling, was appointed as the teacher at this school.

Reuben McDaniel studied at Hughesville School for five years, the required length of schooling which had to be taken by African Americans at this time. He then began to work for his father on their 75 acre farm. His relationship with his father, however, deteriorated. Reuben had ideas about how to obtain better yields by rotating crops. He read articles about how rotating crops would improve the harvest but his father did not want advice from his young son on methods of farming, saying that he had the experience in farming. Reuben's sister Maria had married William Moore on 16 June 1917 and, after her marriage, was living in Washington, District of Columbia. William Moore was a labourer, working in a shop, and Maria made extra money by working as a laundress in her own home. To make Reuben's life easier and allowing him to get away from the difficult feud with his father, he went to live with William and Maria Moore in Washington D.C.

In Washington, Reuben took a job delivering mail. He was not, however, content to spend his life doing such jobs and wanted to continue his education. Garnet Crummell Wilkinson (1879-1969) had studied at M Street High School in Washington D.C., the first public high school for African American students and at Oberlin College before studying for an LLB at Howard University Law School and later a Master's Degree from the University of Pennsylvania. M Street High School was renamed Dunbar High School in 1916, the year Wilkinson became its principal. With advice from Wilkinson, Reuben McDaniel was able to complete his elementary education at night school while continuing his job delivering mail.

The following story was related by Reuben McDaniel's daughter Joann Phillips [5]:-
One of Reuben's mail stops was the US Navy Department where Reuben made friends with a white man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt (later President of the United States), who suggested Reuben attend high school. But high school was only for the day time, so Roosevelt found a night job for Reuben and registered Reuben into Dunbar High School.
I [EFR] find the coincidence of Reuben McDaniel's middle name being Roosevelt and that it was Franklin D Roosevelt who arranged for him to continue his education as surprising. I have tried to check whether indeed Reuben was given the name Roosevelt or whether he adopted it in honour of the help he received from Franklin D Roosevelt. All that is certain in the data is that he was given the name Reuben R McDaniel. The fact that others with the name McDaniel in the same area had the name Roosevelt, would make it likely that he was registered with that name at birth. Another point to note is that when he later studied at university he used the name Reuben Roosvelt McDaniel (with no 'e' in Roosvelt) and the spelling Roosvelt appears on his theses. The spelling Roosvelt also appears on his marriage certificate.

At Dunbar High School, the school where Garnet Crummell Wilkinson was principal, McDaniel did well, in fact so well that in 1924 he was awarded a Rutgers University general scholarship to study at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This scholarship supported him during his four years at Rutgers from 1924 to 1928. At Rutgers he majored in mathematics and physics. He was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa during his junior year and graduated from Rutgers in June 1928 with a Bachelor of Science degree. After graduating, he was appointed in June 1928 as an instructor to teach physics and mathematics at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. This university was the first institution of higher education for African Americans in the South and, being founded in 1865, was among the oldest such institutions in the United States. At the time of the 1930 US Census, McDaniel is recorded as living at the University, one of 17 teachers there. The president of the University was Joseph Leishman Peacock (1873-1954) who had been born in Paisley, Scotland, of Scottish parents.

McDaniel taught at Shaw University until February 1931, and was then appointed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Virginia State College, Petersburg, Virginia, taking up the appointment in September 1931. He had been studying at Cornell University for a Master's Degree and he was awarded a Master of Science degree by Cornell on 30 September 1931 having written the thesis On Certain Definitions of the Definite Integral. While teaching at Virginia State College he met Nannie Delilah Finney, the daughter of Robert Louis Finney and his wife Nannie Dungee. Nannie Finney had been born in Cumberland Virginia on 8 May 1908 and had attended Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute before studying at Virginia State College. There [8]:-
... she completed the two year certificate in secretarial science becoming the first graduate of the newly established Department of Business.
Reuben and Nannie McDaniel had two children. Their first child was Reuben Roosevelt McDaniel Jr. who was born on 6 January 1936 at Petersburg, Fauquier, Virginia. He had an outstanding career: B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Drexel University (1964), M.A. from the University of Akron (1968), and an Ed.D. in higher education from Indiana University (1971). His career in university education led to numerous awards and recognitions. He died in February 2016. Reuben and Nannie McDaniel also had a daughter, Joann Beryl McDaniel, born on 23 May 1943 who attended Peabody High School in Petersburg. She married Roosevelt Delano Phillips on 31 December 1964. Roosevelt Phillips was a TV film technician working for the Petersburg TV Corporation. They were divorced on 29 May 1981.

In October 1936 McDaniel matriculated at Cornell University as a candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. For 1936-1937 he was granted a General Education Board Fellowship, and for 1937-1938 the Erastus Brooks Fellowship in Mathematics at Cornell University. His doctoral studies were supervised by Burton Wadsworth Jones (1902-1983) who had studied for his Ph.D. at Chicago advised by L E Dickson. Burton W Jones had been awarded his Ph.D. in 1928 for his thesis Representation by Positive Ternary Quadratic Forms. McDaniel was awarded a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1938 for his thesis Approximation to Algebraic Numbers by Means of Periodic Sequences of Transformations on Quadratic Forms. The thesis begins [7]:-
Charles Hermite in the latter part of his second letter to Jacobi makes use of his reduction of quadratic forms to develop a periodic sequence of transformations for a sequence of ternary reduced forms ... . Leon Charve using principally the same method but a reduction due to Selling develops a similar periodic sequence for quadratic ternary forms. The present thesis extends the process used by Hermite and later by Charve to quadratic n-ary forms ...
In the thesis McDaniel gives the following Acknowledgement [7]:-
The author wishes to express his sincere appreciation to Professor Burton W Jones, who suggested the problem, for his guidance and constructive criticism in the writing of this thesis.
McDaniel also notes in the Vita that:-
He is a member of the National Honor Society for Secondary Schools, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, the American Mathematical Society and the Virginia conference of Science and Mathematics Teachers.
We note that when McDaniel was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1938 he became the fifth African American to be awarded such a degree. The four before him were Elbert Frank Cox (Cornell University, 1925), Dudley Weldon Woodard (University of Pennsylvania, 1928), William Schieffelin Claytor (University of Pennsylvania, 1933), and Walter Richard Talbot (University of Pittsburgh, 1934).

After the award of his Ph.D., McDaniel's return to Virginia State College was announced in The Sphinx [15]:-
We are happy to announce the return of Brother R R McDaniel, whose brilliant scholastic record and achievements should be an inspiration to all men. Brother McDaniel, on leave of absence, a Phi Beta Kappa Key man from Ruthers and an M.S. from Cornell. He returns to us a Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornel and a member of Sigma Xi, honorary society, of the same institution, to resume his duties as head of the Department of Mathematics. The title of Brother McDaniel's thesis is "Approximation to Algebraic Numbers by Means of Periodic Sequences of Transformations on Quadratic Forms."
McDaniel's wife, Nannie, studied for a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration, a Master of Science Degree in Business Administration, and then did graduate study in Business at The University of Wisconsin and New York University. She taught in the Business Department of Virginia State College giving courses on secretarial science, economics and business [8]:-
Nannie worked at Virginia State in administrative roles including secretary to the Dean of the College, in the Veteran's Administration Office and supervisor of the Central Stenographic Pool. After receiving her Master's degree, she accepted a position on the faculty of the Business Department where she taught courses in secretarial science, economics and introduction to business. Mrs Mac's classes gave students practical skills that would serve them throughout their lives as well as a high level understanding of the business world. Her legacy as a professor extends far and wide.
Both Reuben and Nannie McDaniel were important people in the College [8]:-
Nannie and Mac were a major presence at Virginia State College. Card parties at their home were known for good bridge, great gossip and wonderful food. They never skipped convocation, commencement, honour's day or a home football game. Students were always welcome in their home, where they could get tutoring, the chance to pick up some money doing an odd job or two, or comfort at a time of family crisis. Young faculty members were as welcome at their home as the College president. The McDaniels could be counted on and Nannie was the foundation of that home.
We learn something of McDaniel as a teacher from Rheba Elaine Fearn (1931-2020) who graduated from Virginia State College in 1951 [10]:-
Mrs Fearn continued her education at Virginia State University, like her mother before her, where she majored in Mathematics. Rheba was taught by legendary professors, Dr John M Hunter, who later became Chairman of the Physics Department, and Dr Reuben McDaniel, Sr., Chairman of the Mathematics Department. The two had tremendously high expectations of their students and challenged them to aspire to become the best version of themselves. Mrs Fearn accepted their challenge and thrived under their instruction and mentorship.  Her life-long friend, sorority sister, and classmate Dr Gladys Mae West did as well. Dr West is known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the earth, and her work on the development of Global Positioning System (GPS).
Both Reuben and Nannie McDaniel were active members of the Zion Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. Reuben introduced Walter Elias (1931-2018) to this church early in Elias' career at Virginia State. We note that Elias went on to serve at professor of mathematics at Virginia State becoming head of mathematics. Nannie McDaniel joined the Zion Baptist Church in Petersburg in 1943 and was church treasurer for twenty years.

In 1949, McDaniel was appointed as acting dean at Virginia State College, then as Director of the School of Arts and Sciences. He continued to serve at Virginia State College until he retired [8]:-
After retiring from Virginia State, Nannie and Mac enjoyed a short but active retirement until Mac's death in January, 1975.
McDaniel began to suffer poor health and was diagnosed with cancer. When his condition deteriorated, he was taken to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital where he died of arrhythmia due to "disseminated carcinoma of the rectum and prostate." He was buried in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.

Nannie McDaniel had a long career following the death of her husband, serving as Academic Dean at Morristown Junior College in Morristown, Tennessee, then working for twenty years for the Virginia State College Federal Credit Union. She died on 26 June 2009, aged 101, and was buried beside her husband in Blandford Cemetery.

References (show)

  1. Announcement of the Graduate School for 1933-34, Cornell University Official Publication 25 (2) (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1933).
  2. Approximation to Algebraic Numbers by Means of Periodic Sequences of Transformations on Quadratic Forms, Reuben Roosvelt McDaniel, Abstracts of Theses Accepted in Partial Satisfaction of the Requirements for the Doctor's Degree (Cornell University, 1939), 199.
  3. Centreville District: School Board Minutes, Fairfax County Public Schools.
  4. The Educators of Centreville District, Fairfax County Public Schools.
  5. C El, Reuben R McDaniel, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, Mathematics Department, State University of New York at Buffalo (2008).
  6. J L Houston, Reuben Roosevelt McDaniel (1908-1974), National Association of Mathematicians Newsletter 30 (1) (1999), 12.
  7. R R McDaniel, Approximation to Algebraic Numbers by Means of Periodic Sequences of Transformations on Quadratic Forms, google books.
  8. Nannie Finney McDaniel,*1ezfkef*_ga*MTQwOTI4NzU5Ny4xNTU3MDk0Nzg2*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY1MzMxNjk5Mi4xMC4xLjE2NTMzMTcwNjUuMA.
  9. V K Newell, J H Gipson, L W Rich and B Stubblefield, Black Mathematicians and their Works (Dorrance & Company, 1980).
  10. Rheba Elaine Fearn, Wm. Reese & Sons Mortuary P.A.
  11. Reuben R McDaniel, Scarlet and Black Digital Archive, Rutgers.
  12. Reuben R McDaniel,
  13. Reuben R McDaniel Jr., The History Makers (6 February 2007).
  14. L Saloff-Coste, Graduate students earning a Ph.D. in Mathematics, 1868-1939, Cornell Mathematics Department History.
  15. Virginia State College, R R McDaniel, The Sphinx 24 (3) (1938, 35.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Reuben R McDaniel:

  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update July 2022