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Happy Birthday, Evelyn Boyd Granville!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Evelyn Boyd Granville in 1997. Photo by Margaret Murray, via Mathematicians of the African Diaspora by Scott W. Williams.

Evelyn Boyd Granville, the second African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, turns 90 today (May 1, 2014). I first heard her name in a talk by Patricia Kenschaft about African American mathematicians. Of course, having an affinity for the name Evelyn, she stuck in my mind, and when I found out her 90th birthday was coming up, I gave her a call. It took me a few tries to reach her at a convenient time because both of us are busy people, but we had a lovely conversation when I finally did get to talk with her.

Granville had a long and varied career in mathematics, much of which is described in more detail in many other places online, although I will also outline it here. If you are interested in reading more, her 1989 article My Life as a Mathematician is a good place to start, and you can also read about her on the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora page, which is written and maintained by Scott W. Williams, math professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I also recommend watching the interview of Granville conducted by the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Granville was born and raised in segregated Washington, DC and went to Dunbar High School, which was known as a good school for African American students. In part because of the limited opportunities available to even well-educated African Americans at the time, Dunbar had many excellent teachers, and they prepared students well for college. Granville went to Smith College with the intention of becoming a French teacher, but while she was there she realized that her interests and abilities were more suited to math than literature, and she changed her major to mathematics and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

After leaving Smith, Granville continued on to graduate school at Yale, earning her Ph.D. in 1949. The only other school she applied to was the University of Michigan. “It’s interesting: if I had gone to Michigan, I would have overlapped with Marjorie Lee Browne,” she says. Browne was another African American woman who finished her dissertation in math in 1949, although she did not graduate until early in 1950. (The first African American woman to earn a doctorate in math was Euphemia Lofton Haynes, who graduated from Catholic University in 1943.)

Although Granville was one of the only black students at both Smith and Yale, she says she never felt discriminated against while she was there. “I never had a problem with any professors or fellow students, as far as race was concerned,” she says. “I guess if someone didn’t want to be around me, they just didn’t come around.” When she was in school, she didn’t think of herself as a trailblazer. “I remember one day my sister said to me, ‘Did you know you were one of the first black women to get a Ph.D. in math?’” she says. “It never occurred to me to be a ‘first.’ I just wanted to major in mathematics.”

After graduation, Granville spent a year at the New York University Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Probably because of race and gender discrimination, she was not able to get a job in New York after her postdoc, so she took a position at Fisk University in Nashville. After two years at Fisk, Granville started working in industry, first for the government and later for IBM and other private companies. Much of her work was computer programming related to the space industry. Her work took her from Nashville to Washington and eventually to California after she met the man who would become her first husband.

In the late ’60s, after years of frequent job changes, Granville was working for IBM again when they needed to downsize. She had always enjoyed teaching and was tired of moving around, so she got a job at California State University, Los Angeles, even though it meant a substantial pay cut. She married her second husband, Edward Granville, in 1970. (Her first marriage had ended in divorce in 1967.) In 1984, she retired and moved to Texas with her husband.

But it took a while for Granville’s retirement to “stick.” After moving to Texas, she had a brief stint as a junior high and high school math and computer science teacher. “To make a long story short, I bombed out,” she says, laughing. “I knew nothing about classroom management. I got unhappy, and the children got unhappy.” Granville and the public school system parted ways amicably, and shortly thereafter she started teaching at Texas College, a historically black college in Tyler, Texas. After a few years, she decided to retire to spend more time traveling. “And then I said, ‘Oh dear, this is no fun at all. I’m too young!’” She found a job teaching at the University of Texas at Tyler and stayed there for seven years before retiring again in 1997.

Shortly after that retirement, she got a call from a representative for the Dow Chemical Company to be part of a program to visit public schools and tell middle schoolers about math. She did that for a few years until the company stopped sponsoring the program. At that point, she finally retired “for real,” although she worked with math teachers during the summer for several years.

After her husband’s death, Granville moved back to the east coast to be closer to her family. She now lives in an independent living facility near Washington, DC, where she still keeps active. She has been the president and secretary for the resident council at her living facility, plays Scrabble with fellow residents, goes to—and sometimes leads—exercise classes and lectures, and occasionally tutors some children of staff members. A few years ago, she taught a series of math classes at her residence called “Math for Fun with Evelyn,” a title I am sorely tempted to steal. She says, “My goal is to keep this brain of mine intact.”

Take her Scrabble games: she plays three times a week, often against another resident who is better than she is. “We played Monday night, and I won four games and he won two games. This has never happened before! He almost always wins all the games. I’ve never outdone him,” she says. “Last night we played again: Granville: 0, him: 6. I told him, ‘Thank you for Monday. That was a nice birthday gift.’ Frankly, I play with him because it’s educational for me. He wins almost all the games, but I learn a lot.” From my admittedly limited knowledge of Granville, this attitude seems quintessentially her and a big part of her success. She is always learning, and she isn’t afraid to take on new challenges.

Granville is an impressive person: intelligent, curious, flexible, and with an incredible capacity for perseverance. I feel honored that she agreed to speak with me. I only wish there were more of her. I was shocked to learn that the second African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in math is only my grandparents’ age. She is a remarkable person, but she was certainly not the only black woman who was interested in math in the 1940s. While I was learning about her, I thought of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recently viral comments about minorities and women in science: “What is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not?” Granville is a wonderful role model, but it would be nice if there were more role models like her! The Infinite Possibilities Conference, which Granville told me about, is a happy reminder that there are many more African American women in mathematics now than there used to be. I wish Granville the happiest of birthdays today and hope that we keep making mathematical careers more welcoming for people who have been excluded and discouraged in the past.

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. hkraznodar 1:59 pm 05/22/2014

    With the ratio of women to men enrolled in college shifting to heavily favor women, I think a fundamental shift to a less bigoted environment is underway.

    Each person makes their own definition of success and failure. At the end of the day, what you have decided and what you have done are solely up to you. You may not be in control of the options available and the consequences therein but you are certainly in control of which one you choose.

    I saw a bumper sticker one the car of a female Latin language teacher that translated out to “Don’t let the bastards win”. Bastard, of course was used in the modern meaning.

    Link to this

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