Kelly Miller

Quick Info

23 July 1863
Winnsboro, South Carolina, USA
29 December 1939
Washington, D.C., USA

Kelly Miller was an African-American mathematician, sociologist, essayist, newspaper columnist and author.


Kelly Miller's parents were Kelly Miller Sr and Elizabeth Roberts; he was the sixth of their ten children. Kelly Miller Sr was a free African-American tenant cotton farmer who, around the time his son was born, was fighting for the Confederate army in the American Civil War of 1861-65, a war between the federal government of the United States and the eleven Southern States who formed the Confederate States of America. This is not the place to make any detailed study of the reasons for the Civil War but it is worth noting that slavery was perhaps the main issue. Elizabeth Roberts was a slave and it is interesting at this point to realise that Kelly Miller, the subject of this biography, would become an important figure in seeking fairness for African-Americans. In fact in 1865, when Kelly was two years old, Union troops led by General Sherman destroyed large parts of his home town of Winnsboro.

Following the American Civil War, the Southern States were brought back into the Union and, during the Reconstruction years 1865-75, efforts were made to solve the resulting social problems. Although these were not easy times for the Southern States, one of the positive actions was the setting up of a school system. Kelly benefited from a newly set up primary school where he received an education. The Reverend Willard Richardson (1815-1897), a teacher and Presbyterian minister who arrived in Winnsboro in 1869, had set up schools for African-Americans in Winnsboro. Richardson, who taught Kelly humanities and classics, realised that he had considerable talents, particularly in mathematics, and he recommended that Kelly continue his education at the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, an Institute for African-Americans founded by Richardson who was its first principal. Indeed, he entered the Institute in 1878 and studied there for two years. He was one of around 120 students training to be teachers or ministers of the Church. Miller later described Richardson and similar missionary teachers who set up schools as a:-
... band of heroes who sowed the seed of intelligence in the soil of ignorance.
Howard University, in Washington, D.C., had been set up in 1867 following the Civil War specifically to provide advanced study for African-Americans. Its charter declared it to be:-
... a University for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences.
Miller was awarded a scholarship to study there but had to take a 3-year Preparatory Course covering Latin, Greek, and mathematics before attending the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard. However, Miller was able to complete the Preparatory Course in two years, 1880-82, and entered the College of Arts and Sciences of Howard in 1882. There he studied Latin and mathematics, taught by James Monroe Gregory (1849-1915), who was himself a graduate of Howard. He was also taught by the Rev. William Weston Patton (1821-89), the president of Howard, who was also the professor of natural theology. He spent four years at Howard studying for his first degree, but for two of these years he also worked as a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office. This position had been opened to him by the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 which made certain civil service positions open to anyone, irrespective of political affiliation, religion, race, or national origin. Entry was by a test administered by a Civil Service Commission which Miller passed. He continued to study at Howard University and graduated in 1886 being awarded a Bachelor of Science degree.

After the award of his B.S., Miller continued to work at the Pension Office while he considered applying to undertake postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. He studied at the U.S. Naval Observatory during 1886-87 with Captain Edgar Frisby, an English mathematician and astronomer who had studied at Toronto University and was at the time a professor of mathematics in the U.S. Navy. Frisby also worked as an assistant to Simon Newcomb. Johns Hopkins University had never admitted an African-American so Miller's application was considered by the Board of Trustees. His application was supported by Simon Newcomb who had written directly to the University President, Daniel Coit Gilman, arguing that Miller should be admitted. Note that Gilman had been responsible for bringing James Joseph Sylvester to Johns Hopkins. The Board of Trustees agreed to admit Miller and he began postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1887. During the following two years he studied mathematics, physics and astronomy. He did not receive a doctorate, however, for the University decided to make a substantial increase in their fees and Miller was forced, for financial reasons, to give up his studies. He was then employed as a mathematics teacher at the M Street High School in Washington, D.C., also known as Perry School, during 1889-90.

In 1890, Miller was appointed as a professor of mathematics at Howard University. In 1894 he married Annie May Butler who was a teacher at the Baltimore Normal School; they had five children, Newton, Paul, Irene, May, and Kelly Jr. The author of [4] writes:-
He lived on the campus and provided a beautiful example of family life so valuable to such a community. Like many men of genius he took little interest in his personal appearance and was actually careless in his dress until he married and came under domestic discipline which made some difference.
Miller served as professor of mathematics at Howard for five years then, in 1895, he was appointed as professor of sociology at Howard. The reason for this change of topic is explained in [4]:-
He began his career as a teacher of mathematics and as such was generally very exacting. Those of us who were sufficiently interested and able to follow him far enough realized that he could have been one of the great mathematicians of his day had he been willing to confine himself to the ivory tower of pure scholarship. But he realized early that the Negro college student of that period and in the years immediately ahead needed to be awakened to a realization of the problems of the race and an interest in their solution. To this end, there being no sociology in Howard's curriculum, he skilfully mixed a study of race problems with mathematics in his classes. When a course was completed all the students were keenly conscious of the American social situation, although what they knew about mathematics was often very doubtful.
His mathematical training was, however, important to his ability to argue effectively as a sociologist [9]:-
Trained as a mathematician, Miller brought to his social criticism an ability to dissect skilfully an argument and to propose a precise and effective counter-argument.
He also enrolled as a graduate student and was awarded a Master's Degree in mathematics by Howard in 1901. Although he began to teach sociology from 1895, he continued to teach mathematics until he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1907. He held the position of dean until 1919 but, after 1907, taught only sociology for the rest of his career. In his role as dean he made a substantial impact on the curriculum that was taught in the College, introducing new courses and modernising both the natural sciences and the social sciences side. He also put in a considerable effort recruiting undergraduate students by touring the southern United States encouraging people to enter higher education. He was highly successful for the undergraduate numbers more than trebled in the first four years that he was dean.

His influence, however, went far beyond his work at Howard University, for over the years he became a national leader in the cause of the African-Americans. He did this by giving lectures and publishing essays, books and newspaper articles. We will look below at some of the topics and arguments that Miller put forward in these works. However, one has to point out at this stage that Howard University, although set up to educate African-Americans, still had a white president from the time of its foundation through Miller's period as dean. J Stanley Durkee (1866-1951), a Baptist and Congregationalist minister, became the last white president of Howard University in 1918. Durkee quickly became unpopular with the African-American scholars when he reorganised the university to concentrate all the authority in the president. He realised that Miller was a dean with a huge national reputation and he decided to curtail his power inside the university. In 1919 he demoted Miller to dean of a newly created junior college which only existed for six years. Although Miller retained his high national profile, writing a weekly column published in over 100 newspapers from 1920 to 1940, he was sidelined at Howard. However, he was not the only one to suffer under Durkee's presidency and in 1925 the students organised protests and an eight day strike. Accused of treating the students and the African-American staff at Howard "as a subordinate caste" by Crisis, a publication of which Miller was an assistant editor, Durkee resigned in 1926. Although Miller continued to serve the university as professor of sociology until his retirement in 1934, he never regained his position of influence there. Following Durkee's resignation, there was a move by former students to have Miller appointed as the first African-American president of Howard but it was not successful.

Let us now examine Miller's arguments on educating African-Americans. In an address to graduating students at Howard University in 1898 he said:-
Do not go through the world with a self-deprecatory demeanour, as if you owed the rest of mankind an apology for existing. ... Do not think of yourselves as despicable and mean in comparison with the more forward class who are in the van of civilization. ... The diplomas which you hold in your hands confer upon you all the rewards, rights, privileges, honours, and distinctions which are accustomed to be conferred upon the choicest youth of the human race throughout the civilized world. ... But I must caution you to discriminate finely between self-respect and self-conceit.
You can read Miller's graduation address of 1898 at THIS LINK.

Miller's views were not fixed through his lifetime but developed, influenced by external events [7]:-
... in the years from about 1899 to 1902 [he] enunciated a program of self-help and solidarity, liberal and industrial education, economic and character development and the soft-pedalling of political activity. He did not believe in the innate inferiority of Negroes, but he did accept as proven the inferiority of African culture and the backwardness of the race.
Later, while continuing to argue for education and economic advancement, he was much more definite in arguing for equality of all races. For example, in 1910 he argued that:-
... the contention that in a heterogeneous racial situation one race alone must govern is without sanction either in ethics or experience. ... The class that is shut out from all participation in government will soon be shut from participation in everything that is worthwhile.
Writing on his favourite topic of higher education for African-Americans in The Reorganization of the Higher Education of the Negro in Light of Changing Conditions (1936) he gave his views on the existing situation:-
The white man generously and graciously has accorded the Negro a wide area of educational opportunity subject always to the racial separatrix which operates like the decimal point in arithmetic. ... The Negro mind is passing through the adolescent stage of psychological explosion. It has not found itself. At times it breaks forth in blatant demands of racial equality and again cowardly acquiesces in subordination, injustice, and wrong. It continually oscillates between rash radicalism and the supine submission.
Miller did not argue against segregation, despite believing it wrong. He wrote in the same article:-
There should be frank recognition, on the part of Negro faculties, that the segregated college is an institution for Negroes, of Negroes, if not wholly by Negroes. Racial segregation should be recognized and acknowledged as the outstanding controlling fact, which Negroes have little power to remove or seriously modify. This educational segregation should be recognized, not merely as a fact imposed upon the Negro by the prejudice of the white race, but should be utilized as an agency for developing the best powers and possibilities of Negro youth, partly under their own auspices.
His moderate approach was to argue for what he thought it was possible to achieve [12]:-
Kelly Miller, like so many others, tended to see blacks as an underdeveloped people, locked into a long and arduous struggle to develop as a people, and to achieve rights and equality. Given these developmental and modernizing tasks, and the racist opposition which they faced, Kelly Miller was convinced that only a rational, moderate approach could help blacks make sustained and sure progress.
This moderate approach became more out of sympathy with younger leaders in the 1920s who considered [12]:-
Miller as being of the Old Crowd, which was continuing to give black America uninspiring and unprogressive leadership. This, of course, did not stop Kelly Miller, or any of the Old Crowd leadership from trying to continue to lead black America. But their sun had set. Miller continued to write articles, he became a syndicated columnist for many black newspapers, and continued to convey his views. In the 1920s, these views, as well as Miller's leadership, were roundly condemned, and in some quarters dismissed. In the 1930s, writing and leading in the same fashion, he had hardly any impact on the newer and younger leadership, a good number of whom were Marxist socialists and who explicitly rejected the ideas and leadership of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Miller's life was mostly devoted to his academic duties and his writings. However he did have one hobby [4]:-
His only hobby was his garden of which he was proud. ... if someone passing his home leaned over the fence and praised his melons or marvelled at his beets and cannas his pride was awakened and his soft spot was touched. He was ready to talk horticulture the rest of the day.

References (show)

  1. I Jones, The heart of the race problem: the life of Kelly Miller (Tapestry Press, Littleton, Mass., 2011).
  2. L McGruder, Kelly Miller: The Life and Thoughts of a Black Intellectual, 1863-1939 (Oxford, OH, 1984).
  3. B Eisenberg, Kelly Miller: The Negro Leader as a Marginal Man, Journal of Negro History 45 (3) (1960), 182-197.
  4. D O W Holmes, Phylon Profile IV: Kelly Miller, Phylon (1940-1956) 6 (2) (1945), 121-125.
  5. G B Hutchinson, Whitman and the Black Poet: Kelly Miller's Speech to the Walt Whitman Fellowship, American Literature 61 (1) (1989), 46-58.
  6. A McMillian, Dr Kelly Miller: Online Resources, Library of Congress.
  7. A Meier, The Racial and Educational Philosophy of Kelly Miller, 1895-1915, Journal of Negro Education 29 (2) (1960), 121-127.
  8. Kelly Miller: Obituary, The New York Times (30 December 1939).
  9. S K Roberts, Kelly Miller and Thomas Dixon, Jr. on Blacks in American Civilization, Phylon (1960-) 41 (2) (1980), 202-209.
  10. C G Woodson, Kelly Miller, Journal of Negro History 25 (1940), 137-138.
  11. W D Wright, The Thought and Leadership of Kelly Miller, Phylon (1960-) 39 (2) (1978), 180-192.

Additional Resources (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update January 2013