The African-American breakthrough

In V K Newell, Black mathematicians and their works (Dorrance, 1980), Walter Talbot describes the African-American breakthrough to the national mathematical bodies. We give a version of this below. We also give two letters, one from Walter Talbot, the other to Walter Talbot, concerning Schieffelin Claytor.

  1. Walter R Talbot and the 1969 breakthrough

    When I entered the college teaching scene, it was 1934, and I believe there were three of our mathematics Ph.D.'s ahead of me - Elbert Cox, Dudley Woodard and Schieffelin Claytor. It was thirty-five years later, however, before I had a chance to start existing in the national activities of the mathematical bodies. The story of factors in my career (and in those of some others) goes back to the days when Herman Branson (1914-1995) was urged to transfer to Pitt in hopes of breaking the medical school colour-line. Branson, as any associate must know, is well versed in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, but the line was more real than simply unchallenged; so Branson returned to Virginia State College. I often wonder where science and mathematics in the Traditionally Black Institution would be if Branson had been admitted to medicine. Medical research would have gained, and very likely he would still have taken time to encourage and develop programs for getting more blacks into the health professions, but leadership in many other areas would have had to be undertaken by others. Among the many projects with which Branson did become identified was Educational Services, Inc. (ESI), in Massachusetts (succeeded by the Institute for Services to Education (ISE)), and it was through an ESI planning session for a Pre-College program aimed at reducing the college drop-out rate that I came to appreciate R Creighton Buck (1920-1998), one of Branson's contemporaries at Cincinnati. After the sessions, Buck, voluntarily, took time to supply a long letter on considerations for the mathematical aspects of the program. Maybe others did too, but I don't recall them. The program was developed by an ESI sub-unit, Curriculum Resources Group, and I was associated with it throughout its existence and also later with ISE and its Thirteen Colleges Curriculum Program. One contact leads to another, but I can only guess that someone at one of these programs or at the National Science Foundation (NSF) which was supporting our Academic Year Institute in Mathematics gave my name to a Program Officer of the Ford Foundation as that of a possible director for a Mathematics Curriculum Conference for a Selected Group of Colleges. I became the director, and Ford financed the conference at Morgan State College in April 1969 for about twenty-six mathematics professors who could influence curriculum at our largest [Black] institutions, public and private. That conference was significant because it provided the first realistic opportunity for Black Ph.D.'s in mathematics to meet each other, and, in some cases, to discover each other's existence, and it provided an opportunity for persons already on the national mathematics scene to learn of the existence of these persons in the Traditionally Black Institutions (TBI). The Ford grant provided for consultants; so I contacted the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics (CUPM) Executive Director, George Pedrick, and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) President, Gail Young. Both responded promptly with warm assurances of assistance. Furthermore, CUPM would provide the consultants so that the grant funds could be extended to more participants. At the MAA Las Vegas meeting, Pedrick, Israel Herstein and I talked over ideas and plans. Both Young and Herstein were unable to attend the conference, but our other choices were able to attend. Pedrick had suggested R D Anderson, and I had suggested Buck, both of whom had been chairmen of CUPM. The consultants proved to be very interested, informed and informative. It was not too long after that that mathematicians from the TBIs began to appear at meetings, conferences, in the Lecturers Bureau and the Consultants Bureau. Prior to that, Llayron Clarkson was the only person from a TBI on the national level in the mathematical societies.

  2. Walter R Talbot on William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor

    William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, a distinguished point-set topologist, suffered even more unpleasant experiences at American Mathematical Society meetings, with the result that he became unwilling to attend any. The two letters following reveal much about both the universities and the American Mathematical Society in that time. The first letter is to Virginia Newell, who, as an editor of Black Mathematicians and Their Works, had sought information from the late Walter R Talbot, himself an early Black Ph.D. in mathematics. He, in turn, forwards a letter written by Claytor's widow, a university professor in another discipline:

    Dear Mrs Newell:
    I was just about to give up on getting a write-up on Claytor and tell you that I had lost count on the number of times I had been promised the requested information. Then the enclosed material came yesterday as the mailing cover will show. I have made some pencil marks on the papers. I remember when Claytor was on a post-doctoral at Michigan and they had a vacancy for which he was qualified. They would not offer him the position, and the student newspaper took up the issue but to no avail. I believe that incident in discrimination was one of the main chilling, if not killing, points in the research career of a brilliant mathematician. There are references in the literature to his work, but he lost his spirit. I wish Mae had included that item, but I wouldn't want to burden her with more questions or requests. Needless to say, I hope you can find a way to include Mae's contributions on Claytor. He definitely belongs among the top few of our research persons even with his short career of doing research. His spirit was broken by discrimination.
    Good wishes always.
    Walter R Talbot

    Dr Talbot,
    I am sorry about being late with this but it is just difficult for me to write about Bill. I am still at the point where I do not like to go back and think. In order to get much of this material, I had to go to what I call our memory books and looking at pictures and sort of reliving Bill; it just hurts a bit too much. I hope this is O.K. There is so much I just cannot put on paper. Even writing about Bill and his presentation at the Math Society, I thought about the days Bill used to tell me how owing to the Black-White mess, he had to stay at a private home when the others were at the hotel where the Association met. Over the years when the colour-line became less, he never would attend any more meetings. Kline used to come to see us periodically and try to get Bill to go with him but I guess the hurt went too deeply with him. After he left, I found old papers and letters he had when Kline was trying to get him in Princeton as a Fellow and whew, again it was the colour mess. At Princeton, the administration said the students might object to a 'culud' person which was a laugh, they would never have known it. I do hope what I have written is O.K.
    [Mrs William Claytor]

Last Updated November 2019