Clarence Francis Stephens

Quick Info

24 July 1917
Gaffney, South Carolina, USA
5 March 2018
Rochester, New York, USA

Clarence Francis Stephens was the ninth African American to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics. He developed what became known as the 'Morgan-Potsdam Miracle' method of teaching, based on problem solving with very few lectures.


Clarence Francis Stephens was the fifth of his parents six children. His African American father, R Samuel Stephens (1875-1925), was a chef and railroad worker who married Jeannette Moorehead (1886-1918) on 3 January 1906 in Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Of the six children, three boys and three girls, we have records of only five, Irene Elizabeth Stephens (born 1910), Doris Stephens (born 1912), Claude James Stephens (born 1915), Clarence Francis Stephens (born 1917), the subject of this biography, and Samuel Lloyd Stephens (born 1918). Clarence's mother died during a flu epidemic on 20 October 1918, less than two months after the birth of Samuel Lloyd Stephens. Clarence's father died in 1925 when Clarence was about eight years old, leaving him an orphan. The six children went to live with their grandmother, but she died two years later. No relative of the family could take over the upbringing of six children, so the family was split up with the children living with different relatives [17]:-
Stephens lived with his great aunt Sarah in Harrisburg, North Carolina, in a three-room house. Two of the rooms were bedrooms, one of which was occupied by the two elementary school teachers. The other room in the house was the kitchen, where all homework, dining, and socialising took place.
Harrisburg had no high schools for African American children, so when Stephens reached high school age he contemplated running away and going to the north where it would have been possible for him to attend High School. His eldest sister Irene wanted to help him and, to avoid him running away, offered to pay for him to attend Harbison Agricultural and Industrial Institute for one year on condition he earned money to pay for the following years at the Institute. Harbison Institute, a boarding school for African American pupils, was situated in Irmo, South Carolina. It was named for Samuel Harbison of Pittsburgh, who had provided the original land for the school with farm land attached where pupils could help by providing food for the school and earning money. Irene Stephens made the same offer to Clarence Stephens' two brothers so all three boys studied at Harbison Institute.

At the Harbison Institute, Clarence Stephens was taught mathematics by Robert Walter Boulware (1877-1947), who was dean of the Institute [12]:-
... Boulware was a dedicated teacher who wanted all his students to understand the inner workings of mathematical problems. He often asked Clarence to go to the blackboard and show his classmates the steps for solving a problem. Soon, he began to help his fellow students with their mathematics homework. Clarence explained how to think about mathematical problems, because he wanted them to be able to solve difficult assignments on their own.
The school fees were $100 and Stephens worked on the school farm during the summer to earn the money to pay the fees. He also worked part-time on school days both as a kitchen helper and as a cleaner, dusting and sweeping the classrooms every day. Harbison Institute was run by the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the United Presbyterian Church and, although brought up a Baptist, Stephens joined the United Presbyterian Church, attending the church next to the school. Stephens was a fine sportsman, playing football and baseball to a high standard while at the school. He was a good debater and was popular with his fellow students who elected him class president in his final year at the school. He graduated as the best student in his class in 1934.

The Charlotte Presbyterian Church had set up an Institute for African Americans which became known as Biddle University in 1876. When it received a substantial endowment in the early 1920s from Johnson C Smith, it was renamed the Johnson C Smith University. It became an independent college, affiliated to the Presbyterian Church in 1938 and the church connection meant that the best students at Harbison Institute were offered scholarships to Johnson C Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Stephens, as the best student in his year, was offered a scholarship which he accepted. This however only covered tuition and he still had to earn money to pay for his board. He went to live with some relations in Indianapolis, Indiana for the summer of 1934 hoping to earn enough to fund his first year at university. The best job he could find was as a shoe-shine boy in a barber's shop and although he saved all he could it still was not enough to fund his living expenses at university. His sister Irene again came up with a solution arranging for him to live with relatives in Charlotte close to the university. In addition he took on a part-time job as a delivery man for a local drug store.

In his first year at Johnson C Smith University, Stephens was taught by Robert Langham Douglass (1870-1949), the professor of mathematics. He studied a course on College Algebra which included complex numbers, theory of equations, probability, determinants and partial fractions. He also took a course on Plane Trigonometry which in addition to the usual trigonometry functions and theorems, covered logarithms. Stephens was delighted to find that Douglass did very little lecturing but based most of his teaching on problem solving. This would become Stephens' preferred way of teaching in his own career.

In his first year Stephens had to make deliveries for the drug store on foot, but the store owner purchased a bicycle for him during his second year and he was able to make more deliveries. All three Stephens boys were studying mathematics at Johnson C Smith University and, in the summer of 1937 Clarence and his older brother Claude both went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, looking for work [12]:-
They both applied for the same job as a night clerk in a hotel. Clarence was chosen for the job because he could solve a problem set by the hotel manager. He was able to calculate the room charges for guests who checked out at different times. Luckily this job paid fairly well, and he did not need to work part-time during his last year at college. Claude Stephens, fortunately, had found his own summer job as a barber.
In his final year at Johnson C Smith University, Stephens took the courses History of Mathematics, Differential Equations, Advanced Calculus and Modern Geometry. He was taught in this year by George Frederick Woodson (1901-1985) who was very impressed when Stephens, asked to solve 10 of the 58 problems in the Advanced Calculus course, actually solved all 58. Woodson encouraged Stephen to consider taking graduate studies. Theophilus Elisha McKinney was Dean at Johnson C Smith University and had recently had a good experience as a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan. He suggested to Stephens that the University of Michigan would be a good place for graduate studies and, after graduating from Johnson C Smith University in the summer of 1938, a couple of months later he was beginning graduate studies at Michigan.

Again Stephens faced financial problems since the University of Michigan provided no financial support. Part-time work saw him through two years at Michigan, completing a Master's Degree in the first of these. His original aim was only the Master's Degree but the mathematical physicist George Yuri Rainich (1886-1968) encouraged him to continuing studying for a doctorate. He began research for his doctorate advised by James Andrew Nyswander (1891-1969) in the second of these two years at the University of Michigan. Stephens had been unable to find an advisor for algebra, the topic on which he wished to undertake research, and settled for a compromise undertaking research on difference equations with Nyswander. Although he received help from some members of staff in trying to obtain financial support, he eventually decided to take a temporary job to earn enough money to allow him to return to his research. He was appointed to a temporary teaching position at Prairie View A&M College in Texas, taking up the post in the autumn of 1940.

Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College had been established by the state of Texas in 1876 to educate African Americans. From 1919 it had offered a four year programme and, from 1937, it began to offer graduate studies mostly on agricultural topics. Although teaching went well for Stephens at the College, there was no members of staff with whom he could discuss research. He did, however, make trips to the library of the University of Texas at Austin and was able to borrow books from there. With the aid of these books, he chose his own research topic in difference equations. In order to complete his Ph.D., he had not only to write a thesis but he also had to complete some required courses. In the summer of 1941 he returned to the University of Texas, completed the course work and submitted a research proposal for his thesis based on the study he had made from the borrowed books. Discussions with Nyswander were not too profitable for he advised Stephens that the problems he was proposing to solve were too difficult. Nevertheless, he returned to his teaching post at Prairie View determined to attack these problems.

By the end of 1941 Stephens had made a breakthrough in his research and began writing up his thesis. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 1943 by the University of Michigan for his thesis Nonlinear Difference Equations Analytic in a Parameter. Results from this thesis were published in the paper [19] the Introduction of which begins:-
It is probably correct to say that the modern development of the difference calculus began with a memoir by Poincaré published in 1885. Important progress has been made during recent years in the theory of linear equations and there is now a fairly complete theory of linear difference equations. Up to the present time but little progress has been made in the development of a systematic theory of nonlinear difference equations from the point of view of general function theory. However, some progress is being made along these lines. The main purpose of the present paper is an investigation of the solutions of nonlinear difference equations analytic in a parameter. We are interested in those solutions which are again analytic in this parameter and in the different forms that these solutions may take.
The Japanese attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and on the following day the USA entered World War II. Stephens did war service from 1942 to 1946 as a Teaching Specialist in the US Navy, assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Base in Waukegan, Illinois, where sailors were trained.

Stephens married Harriette Josephine Briscoe (1919-2007), the daughter of the medical doctor Charles Emanuel Briscoe and his wife Eloise S Childers, on 21 December 1942 at Ann Arbor. They had a daughter H Jeanette Stephens (born about 1944), and a son, Clarence F Stephens Jr. (born about 1948). Janette went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematical education from the University of Iowa while Clarence F Stephens Jr. was awarded a Master's Degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin.

After completing his war service at the Great Lakes Naval Base, Stephens returned to Prairie View College, now as a professor of mathematics. In 1947 the President of Morgan State College invited Stephens to become Professor of Mathematics at the College. Originally a private institution from its founding in 1867, it had been purchased by the State of Maryland in 1939. Stephens took up the position in the autumn of 1947. For the first time in his career, he had the chance to teach with the style he thought most effective. He certainly thought little of the way that students at Morgan State College were being taught when he arrived, and felt that students were not being encouraged enough. The fact that no student from the College had ever studied for a Master's Degree convinced him that the teaching methods were at fault. Although he arrived at Morgan State College enthusiastic about continuing his own research, his interests slowly moved towards teaching. At the research level we should note his second paper, Nonlinear Difference Equations Containing a Parameter, published in 1950. In this paper he writes [20]:-
The procedure for investigating solutions of [a system of non-linear difference equations] which will be given in this paper is different from and simpler than the one considered in the author's dissertation.
His research achievements were recognised with the award of a Ford Fellowship which allowed him to spend from September 1953 to May 1954 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

With regard to the teaching methods he introduced at Morgan State College we quote from Earl Russell Barnes (born 1942) who was taught by Stephens at the College and went on to be awarded a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland [5]:-
Dr Stephens was a very effective teacher, though he did little of the traditional lecturing. He spent a lot of time talking to us about the power and beauty of mathematics. As he put it, once we developed a love for mathematics and discovered the joy of doing mathematics we would insist on learning it on our own. We would leave his classes, rush to the library and immerse ourselves in the math books trying to learn as much as we could. Instead of lecturing to us about mathematics Dr Stephens used to talk to us about famous mathematicians he had known. After Dr Stephens received his PhD he was invited to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He used to tell us stories about mathematicians who were at the Institute during his visit. ... When Dr Stephens did lecture he would solve something that at first seemed a mystery to us. At the conclusion of his argument, when it was clear that he had unravelled the mystery, he would strut back and forth before the blackboard, arms raised in celebration. We all wanted to be like him, and to experience the joy he found in doing mathematics.
In 1962 Stephens left Morgan State College when he was appointed as acting chair of mathematics at the State University of New York at Geneseo. While there, he taught Jayne Riesch Schrank who wrote [5]:-
What a wonderful man Dr Stephens was! I had the privilege of having him as a professor for math while a student at the State University of New York Geneseo in the 1960s. He was a very kind, caring individual who had his students best interests foremost in his teaching, and continued so even upon their graduation. Not only did he earn respect of those he taught but that of the faculty too. My late father, Dr Kenneth Riesch, taught with Dr Stephens at Geneseo; Dad always spoke very highly of Dr Stephens, and I can only add my admiration of him as well.
After seven years, in 1969, he became Chair of Mathematics at the State University of New York Potsdam. Deborah LaBelle writes [5]:-
Dr Stephens was an inspiration to all, but especially to the women Math students. I first met Dr Stephens at a freshmen gathering of Math students in the fall of 1974 at the State University of New York Potsdam. He talked to everyone individually, and when he came over to talk to me he told me that he was happy to see me and other women here to study math, "we need more women in Math", he said. Then he asked me where I was going to go to get my Ph.D. He planted that seed in my head, that a lowly freshman like me could get her Ph.D. I never forgot that question and was determined to somehow get a Ph.D. In 2008 I did just that. Thank you, Dr Stephens, for giving me encouragement during my years at Potsdam and for many years since. You were truly one of a kind. I retell this story to my own students now, in hopes that someday they too will continue their education and know that they are capable. Dr Stephens words live on.
Stephens also taught Cheri Boyd who said [16]:-
He would simply walk among our seats and talk. You had to listen to every word and try to figure out what he was telling us. He did not lecture, he invited us to think about a definition and conjecture some related property about a set or a relation. Then he invited us to prove it ourselves, at our seats, during class. ... He offered his mantra that we needed to "know when you know." We each spent the entire semester developing our own ability to know when we knew. ... By fifth semester, we were starting to know.
Vasily Cateforis succeeded Stephens as chair of the State University of New York Potsdam's Mathematics Department and was also his former student at Morgan State. Cateforis said [13]:-
Under Dr Stephen's care, the mathematics department was a place where students acquired confidence through simple but worthwhile tasks and self-respect. We came to feel that we could do anything, especially mathematics.
Johnny L Houston writes (see [9] or [10]):-
Professor Stephens discovered at a very early age that he could learn mathematics with very little help from his teachers. This ability to read mathematics with understanding, and to enjoy it for its intrinsic beauty, accounts for much of his success in becoming a mathematician. His teaching technique consists mainly of developing these abilities in students. He realised that a student who can study independently and find joy in learning and discovering new ideas, already has much of what is required for success in mathematics.
Stephens received many honours in addition to those mentioned above. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science degree from the Johnson C Smith University in 1954. Governor J Millard Tawes of Maryland honoured him for his contributions to mathematical education in 1962. He received the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976-1977. He was inducted and permanently placed in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, as part of the "A Living History Project Black Americans in the Sciences" on 28 February 1983. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York honoured him for his contributions to mathematical education in 1987. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago in 1990, from the State University of New York in 1996, and from Lincoln University in 2000. He received the National Association of Mathematicians Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. He received the Mathematical Association of America's Gung and Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics in 2003. The Seaway Section of the Mathematical Association of America named their teaching award after Stephens in 2003.

In his 100th year, he was still being honoured [13]:-
In recognition of the transformative role that Stephens played in the College's history, the State University of New York Potsdam honoured him in May 2016 with a special celebration coinciding with its bicentennial year. Many friends, family members, alumni and colleagues gathered on campus to unveil a bronze plaque that is now permanently displayed in Carson Hall in Stephen's honour.
In 2018 he received the National Association of Mathematicians Centenarian Award and the Association named their Stephens annual teaching award in his honour.

His wife Harriette had died on 29 July 2007 aged 88; they had been married 69 years. She was buried at Temple Hill Cemetery, Geneseo, Livingston County, New York. At this time a tombstone was erected with Harriette's birth and death dates, and also Clarence's name and date of birth; he was preparing to join her. Clarence Stephens lived with his son on his own thirty acre farm, located near Dansville, New York. He died aged 100 on 5 March 2018 at Rochester, Monroe County, New York and was buried at Temple Hill Cemetery in the grave prepared when his wife had died.

Let us end this biography by quoting the first paragraph of Stephens' paper A Humanistic Academic Environment for Learning Undergraduate Mathematics (1988) [21]:-
Teachers of undergraduate mathematics work under conflicting professional responsibilities. In strong Ph.D. granting mathematics departments undergraduate enrolment in mathematics forms the major support for graduate students as well as the regular mathematics faculty. At these universities much undergraduate mathematics is taught by graduate assistants who have their primary obligation to their graduate studies and research. Most regular mathematics faculty at these universities have no interest in teaching undergraduate mathematics. (It is rare for undergraduates to understand or to participate in the research of their mathematics teachers.) If regular mathematics faculty teach undergraduate mathematics, the lecture method is used most often with very large classes so that the lecturers have almost no knowledge of the hopes, anxiety, or growth in mathematical maturity of their students. Mathematics faculty at these universities expect a large number of their best graduate students to be foreign students and very few will be selected from the undergraduates they teach at their own university. Research grants and fellowships are sought in order to relieve a faculty member from teaching, and in particular, undergraduate teaching.

References (show)

  1. E R Barnes, G F Gilmer and S W Williams, Clarence and Harriet Stephens, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, Mathematics Department, State University of New York at Buffalo.
  2. Clarence F Stephens Hall, Alabama A&M University.
  3. Clarence Stephens, 2018 Honoree, Mathematically Gifted and Black (2018).
  4. Dr Clarence F Stephens, Rochester Democrat And Chronicle (9 March 2018).
  5. Condolences to the family of Dr Clarence F Stephens Sr., Rector Hicks Funeral Home.
  6. D K Datta, Math Education at Its Best. The Potsdam Model (Center for Teaching/Learning of Mathematics, 1993).
  7. G F Gilmer and S W Williams, An Interview with Clarence Stephens, UME Trends 2 (1), (1990).
  8. N E Goren, The Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal: A Bibliographic Report, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics 8 (1) (2018), 140-270.
  9. J L Houston, Clarence Francis Stephens, Mathematical Association of America.
  10. J L Houston, Clarence Francis Stephens, National Association of Mathematicians Newsletter 28 (3) (1997), 14.
  11. J L Houston, Clarence F Stephens (1917-2018), Notices American Mathematical Society 65 (7) (2018), 848-849.
  12. J H Kessler, K A Morin, J S Kidd and R A Kidd, Clarence Stephens, Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century (Oryx Press, 1996), 296-301.
  13. K Magee, In Memoriam: Dr Clarence F. Stephens, Sr., Potsdam State University of New York.
  14. Managing Editor, Commentary: Black Scientists, Explorers, and Inventors, Daily Kos (10 July 2020).
  15. R E Megginson, Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr Charles Y Hu Award to Clarence F Stephens for Distinguished Service to Mathematics, American Mathematical Monthly 110 (3) (2003), 117-180.
  16. O Nicodemi, Section Happenings: An Icon Turns 100, Mathematical Association of America (2017).
  17. K Rountree and O Stanley, Clarence F Stephens, Computer Science Department, Appalachian State University.
  18. E Shepherd-Wynn and V L Farmer (eds.), Voices of Historical and Contemporary Black American Pioneers (ABC-CLIO, 2012).
  19. C F Stephens, Nonlinear Difference Equations Analytic in a Parameter, Transactions of the American Mathematical Society 64 (2) (1948), 268-282.
  20. C F Stephens, Nonlinear Difference Equations Containing a Parameter, Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society 1 (2) (1950), 276-281.
  21. C F Stephens, A Humanistic Academic Environment for Learning Undergraduate Mathematics, Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal 3 (1988), 46-49.
  22. E N Walker, Beyond Banneker. Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence (State University of New York Press, 2014).

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Clarence Francis Stephens:

  1. Clarence F Stephens Advice to Teachers

Other websites about Clarence Francis Stephens:

  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile
  3. zbMATH entry

Cross-references (show)

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