Can History Predict the Future?
by Kenneth R. Manning
in The African American Presence in Physics, Ronald E. Mickens, editor
Few scientists of color have made breaktrough discoveriers. The world cannot expect to produce a Newton, Einstein [or Gauss] more than one every few centuries. But science, as much as it may be based on the fundamental discoveries of one or two great minds, is developed through the day-to-day activities of hundreds of hardworking, most of the time little known men and women. African Americans in this group have a far lower profile than whites. Their achievements have been underplayed, neglected or totally ignored.
African Americans have made important contributions to science since the eighteenth century, beginning with the work of Benjamin Banneker, an astronomer, architect, mathematician, and engineer who, among other things. Late in the century, 1876 to be exact, the first black Ph.D. in science, Edward Bouuchet, received his degree in Physics from Yale University. He was the first Black to receive a Ph.D. from an American university and one of the first recipients of any color to earn that degree. Professional opportunities in science were not open to him, though he had worked beside some of Americia's top physicists, including the eminent Josiah Willard Gibbs at Yale. Thus, Bouchet's career did not include reeearch in the sciences; instead, he became a high-school teacher of science. His was nonetheless an important accomplishment, a landmark of sorts, though we are unable to discern the full extent of his influence on other blacks who subsequently took up careers in science.
It is not really until the turn of the twentieth century that a handful of blacks began to enter the scientific fields. Among these people come to mind Charles Henry Turner, George Washington Carver, Ernest Everett Just, St. Elmo Brady, Samuel Imes, and a little later, Percy Lavon Julian, Charles Richard Drew, and Julian Lewis. This cohort represents the first group of black scientists who received Ph.D.s from major white universities, pursued science at a research level, and with the exception of Carver, publishedc in the leading scientfic journals of the day. Their professional lives unfolded mainly at black colleges, universities, and other institutions. The only exception, Julian Lewis, a pathologist at the University of Chicago, was able to secure a pst at a white university prior to the Second World War.[For additional material, see A Modern History of Blacks in Mathematics].
A few blacks did engage in research at white laboratories and other institutions, suchas the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. E.E. Just and Charles Henry Turner are two examples. When they took part in research activities at these laboratories, they often were confronted by the prevailng abominable racial attitudes of the time. Ernest Everett Just's experience at the Marine Biological Laboratory is a good example, where he and his family were subjected to a hostile environment and racial slurs both in a scientific and a non-scientific context. For the most part, however, the careers of African-American scientists were grounded in a black institutional context that rarely had sufficient financial wherewithal to provide essential facilities and meet the other demands of research science.
After World War II, a few white universities began to open up opportunities for blacks on their faculty as well as for blacks seeking graduate training within the departments. Still, the major problems facing blacks pursuing careers in science lingered: lack of access to a high-quality elementary and high-school science preparation, weak undergraduate curricula in black colleges and exclusion from certain opportunities at white colleges, the high cost of graduate training, and outright discrimination in the professional sphere. As an example of the last point, professional meetings of national scientific groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science were still being held as late as the mid-1950s in segreated cities like Atlanta and New Orleans, where black scientists who wanted to attend would not be given accomodation at conference hotels.
Although science purports to be objective and supposedly has imbedded in it a kind of democratic core, scientists are not science, they are not the thing itself -- they are people who live in the world with other people and have many of the same social views and behavior patterns of society at large. Their institutions are hardly any different than institutions of other professions. The pursuit of a scientific education conforms to the structure of that for any other kind of education. A segregated educational system has had the same effect, if not greater, on science in this country with regard to blacks as it has had on other provinces of learning. Even though the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education landmark decision was intended to eliminate segregation in education, we know that in many parts of the country segregation persisted. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was a minor milestone in the direction of eliminating segregation achieved. Then, opportunities for African Americans opened up at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at many white colleges and universities, and as a result, careers in the field of science became a firmer reality for many African American students. Even so, the dual educational structure was so deeply imbedded in the society that many aspects of the segregated system carried over into so-called integrated situations.
Throughout the history of science two striking constants for scientific success have been early education and mentorship. In looking at the lives of black scientists like Charles Drew, Benjamin Banneker, Margaret Lawrence, David Blackwell, and Walter Massey, to name a few, we see the importance of nurturing family, early schooling, and scientific role models. Such optimum conditions are still not common. While integration of schools has supposedly opened up roots of access, in many circumstances a disguised form of segregation has emerged known as "tracking" -- a system which assigns students to courses within a school system by ability groups. Since it is deeply ingrained in American cullture and society that African Americans have inferior minds in general and inferior ones for logical deduction and analysis in particular, it is little wonder that black students end up where they do. When minority students are "tracked," they are often steered away by counselors and teachers, not all white, from the rigorous scientific and mathematical courses requisite for future training in science. The system is more insidious and often more destructive than an openly segregated one.
If we wish to talk about the future and the need to increase the number of blacks in science, then we must address the issues of early education. Indeed, we must focus on the education of blacks all along the educational pipeline, from pre-school through postgraduate work. Science as a discipline is cumulative and training in science often proceeds along well-established lines and routes. It is not easy to overcome a sidestep along the way. So, counseling and mentorship are crucial in steering and encouraging black students to fulfill their goals in this direction. One common aspect of the lives of many black scientists is the thouroughness of their education from beginning to end, and the decisive way they have seized and taken full advantage of every opportunity.
When we talk about African Americans in science, too frequently we focus on the benefits and gains for the race as a whole and rarely do we take into account the personal sacrifices of the individual. Throughout history, case after case reveal that blacks choosing science as a profession do so at tremendous personal cost. Inevitably a career in science for an African American has required a level of interaction with the white professional community, in a way that a career in medicine, for example, might not. This interaction involves struggle, conflict, tension -- experiences that can both generate creativity and take their toll psychologically and otherwise. We need to address this issue of personal cost and sacrifice, and try to understand it as a challenge -- though not an unmanageable one -- for African Americans joining the professional ranks of science. I have been working for the last eight years on a project, "Quality Educationan for Minorities," which is currently based in Washington, DC, and which has its main goal an increase in the number of black and other minorities in the field of science over the next decade. The project is comprehensive and attempts to deal with the problems of the underrepresentation of blacks and other minorities from a systemic perspective. It seeks to restructure some fundamental aspects of education of blacks in both urban and rural settings.
As we enter the twenty-first century, if this country is to maintain its status as a world power, it will clearly need the talents and resources of all its citizens, including -- perhaps especially -- those of African Americans. The low percentages of black Ph.D.s in the fields of science and engineering that we now see (around 3%) must increase significantly. Over the last decade, the percentage of African Americans entering the scientific profession has not increased much. The goal of increasing the numbers, of producing African-American men and women on the cutting edge of scientific research, can be attained by determination on the part of African Americans to continue the struggle for excellent that we have inherited from people like Imes, Just, Julian, Roger Airline Young, Ruth Lloyd, Jewel Plummer Cobb, Shirley Jackson, George Langford, and Ronald Mickens. By looking at the careers of these men and women in African-American history, we can draw inspiration to shape a future of scientific opportunity and achievement for the present generation and for generations yet to come [also see Who are the greatest Black Mathematicians?].
History Predict the Future?
Kenneth R. Manning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge Massachusetts 02139
Back to SPECIAL ARTICLES
Since opening 5/25/97, visitors to
The website MATHEMATICIANS
OF THE AFRICAN DIASPORA is brought to
The Mathematics Department of
The State University of New York at Buffalo
created and maintained by
Dr. Scott W. Williams
Professor of Mathematics
CONTACT Dr. Williams