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Mathematics, Live: A Conversation with 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. Image: Margaret Murray, via Mathematicians of the African Diaspora by Scott W. Williams.

Evelyn Boyd Granville was one of the first African American women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She recently turned 90, and I wrote a post here to celebrate. This more complete version of our interview originally appeared in the September-October 2014 issue of the Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter. It is an edited transcript that combines two conversations we had in April.

In our conversations, Dr. Granville’s curiosity, intelligence, positivity, and energy were inspiring. She worked in pure mathematics, computer science, the space industry, and math education and outreach, almost always with great success. But one of my favorite things about our conversations was how frank she was about some of her failures, particularly her short-lived stint teaching middle school computer science. In her words, she “bombed out,” but she laughed as she told me about it. She wasn’t afraid to try something new, and she wasn’t afraid to admit that it wasn’t right for her.

EL: First, what was your field in mathematics?

EBG: I did my doctorate on Laguerre series in the complex domain. But I didn’t do any math work in functional analysis after my doctorate. I went to work for IBM in ’56, where I was introduced to computers and programming, and I was doing applied mathematics. Eventually I went to California State University in Los Angeles, rather than moving around as the contracts moved around. While I was there, I got interested in mathematics education, especially the new math that would be introduced in schools. I wrote a textbook for teachers who were just getting familiar with the new math and helped make training programs for them. I kind of went across the board in mathematics.

EL: How did you get interested in math? Were you encouraged as a child and young woman?

EBG: I was encouraged all the way through school. We called it arithmetic in my day, in elementary school. I was always good in arithmetic. I always did well in problem solving and algebra, so I never had a problem with mathematics. But in my high school yearbook, I put myself down as being a French teacher. When I got to college, I started taking math, and I realized that I was more a mathematician than a literary person. So I stuck with mathematics. When I was at Smith, I did very well with math. My last two years I got into the honors program. That meant I wouldn’t have to attend math classes, I could study on my own. So I stayed with mathematics. Of course since I needed scholarships, I thought I’d better stick with the subjects that I know I can get good marks in. So that was mathematics and mathematical physics.

When I graduated from Smith I knew then that I wanted to go on with the study of mathematics.

I applied to Yale and Michigan. I don’t think Michigan gave me a scholarship, but Yale did.

EL: Those were the only two schools you applied to?

EBG: Yes, those were the only two. I chose Yale because they gave me the scholarship. It was only 300-some dollars, but 300-some dollars was money in that time.

But it’s interesting, if I had gone to Michigan, I would have met Marjorie Lee Browne, who along with me was one of the first black women to get Ph.D.s in math. We would have overlapped at Michigan. I didn’t learn about her until later, when they said we were the first two black women to get Ph.D.’s in math. [Granville and Browne both earned their doctorates in 1949, and for a while, people thought they were the first African American women to earn doctorates in math. Later, it was discovered that Euphemia Lofton Haynes had earned one in 1943.]

EL: So when you were going to school, you didn’t have any idea that you were one of the first to do this?

EBG: No, no, not at all. I remember one day my sister said to me, I don’t know where she learned it, “did you know you were one of the first black women to get a PhD in math?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” It never occurred to me to be the first. I just wanted to major in mathematics.

I got good fellowships while I was at Yale. That made it possible for me to go right through.

I got a scholarship from Smith to go on to graduate school and a small scholarship from Yale. Altogether I had about $1100, which was good money in those days. I got my master’s in one year. Then I applied for a Julius Rosenwald fellowship. Julius Rosenwald was a philanthropist, and he made money available to African Americans for graduate study. My second year at Yale, I had a Julius Rosenwald fellowship, and help from Yale. The third year I got another Julius Rosenwald fellowship and help from Yale. The fourth year I got an Atomic Energy pre-doctoral fellowship from the US government. That finished up the four years there. So I didn’t have to stop and work and make the money to go to graduate school.

I went to Yale in 1945, right after the war. The young men had been off to war, so we had a very large group of graduate women at Yale. I never had a problem as far as race was concerned. I guess if someone didn’t want to be around me, they just didn’t come around. I never experienced any racial problems at Smith or Yale. Or as I tell people, maybe I should have, but I overlooked it or didn’t realize it was happening.

When there are very few of us there, it is usually easier to be accepted. Once Smith started admitting more African American young ladies, some problems developed at Smith. So I think that’s one thing I didn’t experience because when I was at Smith, there were only about five of us. So we were not a “threat.” We were hardly noticed.

I had an easy time financially, and I had an easy time being accepted and promoted and helped and encouraged.

EL: Were you encouraged even before college to go on in math, or was it mainly in college and graduate school?

EBG: Well I grew up in Washington, and I went to segregated schools in Washington. I went to Dunbar High School, which was known throughout the country as an outstanding prep school for “colored people,” as we were called then. Because, for the most part, jobs were limited for black people, we had some of the best teachers. Other professions were closed to us. So Dunbar had the advantage of having excellent teachers. Also, we were in a culture, a community, that stressed going to college. We were encouraged to go to colleges in the northeast. The year I graduated, in ’41, there was a group of seven or eight of us young women who went to colleges in the northeast. We were always encouraged to do that.

I was in the homeroom of Mary Cromwell. The Cromwells were a well-known family in Washington. Her sister Otelia Cromwell was, I believe, the first black woman to graduate from Smith, in the early 1900s. I was in Mary Cromwell’s homeroom, so I was encouraged to go to Smith. I was admitted to both Mount Holyoke and Smith, but the Cromwells talked me into going to Smith. That’s how I happened to get there. had a very pleasant experience at Smith. I graduated summa cum laude in mathematics and was admitted into phi beta kappa.

When I graduated from Yale, I was encouraged to go to the NYU Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Courant was the leader there, and I was there for postdoctoral work. I spent a year there and then looked around for a job. I remember going to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. I didn’t get hired but later never thought anything about it. Later, Patricia Kenschaft said that they thought it was a big joke that a black woman would apply there. But I was interviewed, I was treated pleasantly there. I didn’t detect any problems. I didn’t expect to be hired, you know.

As a matter of fact, I was not happy with New York City. It was expensive, it was hard to find a place to live. It didn’t bother me at all that I didn’t get hired in New York City. Instead I got a job at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. I stayed there for two years. I enjoyed teaching there. In the meantime, I don’t remember whether I applied or somebody heard about me, but I was interviewed by a young man to work at the National Bureau of Standards, working with engineers. At that time, they were doing research in the development of missile fuses. This young man—he was an African American—was head of the unit of mathematicians. He encouraged me to leave Fisk and come to Washington. Of course that was home, and it was nice to come home.

Then I was hired in 1956 to work for IBM. This was just the beginning of the computer. I trained at the Thomas Watson lab in New York City, writing programs for the IBM 650. Then I came back to Washington for a couple years. My boss at the time, the head of the program, was transferred to New York City. He asked me to go with him up there to work for IBM. So I went from Washington DC to New York.

I was always working with programming at different facilities, mainly for the government. I stayed in New York just a year. Then the same boss who took me to New York was transferred back to Washington to head up the IBM space computing center in Washington DC. IBM had won a contract with NASA to write programs for the space program.I thought, “Computers and the space program, this sounds exciting!” So I came back to Washington, and I worked on programs for the first space program, Project Vanguard. At that time, the satellite was the size of a grapefruit. We were writing programs for something up in the air the size of a grapefruit! First we were working on Project Vanguard, then Project Mercury, the two men in space.

In ’57 or ’58, I visited some friends who had moved from New York to California. They introduced me to a young man who lived there. The upshot was in 1960 I married a young man who lived in California, which meant I had to move to California. IBM at that time had no big projects in California, so I wasn’t able to transfer to IBM. Instead, I got a position with Space Technology Laboratory, which was also doing space computing, developing programs for tracking satellites and spacecraft. It was right outside of Los Angeles, very convenient for me. At this time, the cold war was going on. There were lots of jobs in engineering, mathematics, and physics. It was a time when no matter what color you were, if you could do the job, you were hired.

I had several friends in different companies. One friend was at North American Aviation. He headed up a group there. He said to me one day, “Evelyn, we’ve got some good projects over here. We need mathematicians, we need everybody. Can we lure you over with a little bit more money? We have interesting projects.”  So I switched over to North American Aviation from Space Technology Laboratory. It sounds like job jumping, but that was the way things were then. The whole field was exploding, and people needed workers. I was always moving on to more money and more interesting work.

One day I got a call from Jane Cahill. We had worked together at the Space Computing Laboratory in Washington. Jane had moved up to be in charge of hiring, and she called and asked if I’d like to come back to IBM. At that time, IBM was “the” company to work for. IBM was a great company. People respected IBM She said, “we have some interesting projects and new contracts, and we need people.” I had enjoyed working for IBM, so I went back to IBM. I stayed there until 67. Then this division of IBM didn’t win some of the contracts that they thought they would, so they were going to reduce the force in the Los Angeles area office. They said they could move me to Washington or somewhere else in California. I was going through a divorce at the time, and I decided I wanted to stay and settle the divorce. I did not want to come back to Washington, and the other position in California didn’t quite appeal to me.

That’s when I decided I was tired of moving around. I had been moving around to different businesses, and I wanted to stay put. I started looking into jobs at the colleges. I applied to several of the California universities in the vicinity. I was offered a job at California State University Los Angeles. I decided, OK, I enjoy teaching, and it gives me a chance to stay right in LA. Even though I was making $20,000 at IBM, a big salary, I took a job there for $10,000. I cut my salary in half. You know, $20,000 was money then! But I had decided, I can make it on $10,000. I’m going to stop this business of jumping around and take a job that is permanent. So in ’67 I took the job at Cal State LA. In the meantime I got a divorce, and later on in 70, I met Mr. Ed Granville. We hit it off big and got married. I stayed there until the spring term of 1984, when I retired. In December of ’83 we had moved to Texas because my husband had decided he wanted to retire. But I stayed on one more quarter to get that year of work in. We were on the quarter system, so I left there in March of 84 and joined my husband down in Texas.

So there I was retired in Texas. We bought a house that had two bedrooms, and my husband decided we needed a third room. He talked to a contractor about adding a third room, and this contractor happened to be on the school board. He and Ed started talking, and Ed always talked about me. He was very proud of me. It turns out this gentleman was on the school board. Texas had just implemented the teaching of computer literacy at the junior high school level. When he found out I worked with computers, he said, “we need a teacher.” When I came down in March of ’84, I was interviewed, and I thought it would be fun to teach computer literacy to these young students.

Starting in the fall of 1984, I joined the school district, teaching three classes of computer literacy at the junior high school level and one of math at the high school level. Well, to make a long story short, I bombed out. I knew nothing about classroom management, so I was not good at managing the class. I got unhappy, the children got unhappy, everybody got unhappy. About the middle of that fall term, I went to the superintendent and said, “You know, I know, everybody knows, I’m not really happy here, and you’re not satisfied. Can you release me at the end of the semester?” He said, “Maybe I can release you sooner than that.”

About a month later, he came to me and said, “This is it.” We parted happily. I was happy to leave, and I think they were happy to see me go. As I said, I didn’t know anything about classroom management, and I bombed out. It’s as simple as that. So I said, “that is not my cup of tea.”

In the meantime, Ed had met a member of the board at Texas College, which was a historically black college in Tyler, Texas. We were living about 15 miles outside of Tyler. They had just gotten a grant to develop a computer science program at Texas College. When the board member heard about my background, he asked, “Can we get her?” So I was hired there in the math-computer science department. And that was a very good experience for me. I was teaching computer science, programming, and mathematics. I was there 3 1/2 years. Then I said, “Ed, I retired once, maybe I should retire again. I’ve had this experience, it’s been enjoyable, but maybe I should enjoy retirement.” My working had meant that our traveling was limited to the summer.

In ’88 I left Texas College. In ’89, I said, “Oh dear, this is no fun at all. I’m too young.” I was in my 60s then. In the meantime, through some friends I had met there, I met a young man who had some connection with the board of regents for the University of Texas system. He said, “You should be teaching at the University of Texas in Tyler.” I think they were looking for minority faculty. When I went there, I don’t think they had any minority faculty there, or maybe one or two. When he mentioned my field and the fact that I was a minority, I think that piqued their interest. They had an opening in the math department. So I joined as a visiting professor in 1990, and they even gave me a chair! I was appointed for a first year, a second year, a third year, a fourth year. At the end of the four years, I said to Ed, “If I stay five years, I’ll be vested for a pension.” He said, “Go for five years!” So I stayed for a fifth year, and then a sixth year and a seventh year, 1997. Then I decided, “Ed, this is it. It’s time for me to quit.” I was in my 70s now. So in 1997 I retired from UT Tyler. And I thought, “Now I’ll really enjoy retirement. Finally.”

Then I got a call one day from a public relations person working for Dow Chemical company: “We’re looking for someone who can visit middle schools to talk to children about the importance of mathematics. Would you like to work with Dow Chemical on this project? I said, “That sounds like fun.” So in 1998 and 1999 I traveled several times a month to visit middle schools to talk to them about the importance of studying mathematics. The nice thing was that Ed went too. I called Ed my chauffer and bodyguard. We drove everywhere, and it was wonderful. We met interesting people, it was fun. And Dow Chemical gave me a stipend for doing this. We traveled around east Texas, south Texas, and even Louisiana to visit middle schools and talk about the importance of mathematics. That was really a fun assignment. Ed traveled with me. We enjoyed meeting people, we enjoyed the hotels and the food. Hopefully I got the message across about the importance of mathematics.

At the end of ’99, Dow decided that it was the end of the program. Why they stopped it I really don’t know. That was really the end of my work experience. I worked until I was 75 years old. After that it was just enjoying retirement, although during the summers I did some summer workshops for teachers in mathematics. I worked a couple weeks. There was a Kilgore College instructor who got grants for teacher training. Then she moved over to Corsicana, where I was living, and I continued working in the summer there in Corsicana. I did that until I left Texas. So I never sat down and had nothing to do.

EL: So you weren’t very good at being retired?

EBG: No, no, no. I do not like sitting around. I’m retired now. After my husband passed, I came back to Washington and found an independent living facility. But I try to stay as busy as possible here.

EL: What are you involved with?

EBG: For two years I was president of the resident council. All the residents here belong to the resident’s council. Through the council, we can let the management know what we like or don’t like. For two years I was the president and secretary. I finally talked someone else into running for president, and now I remain the secretary. I’m active in the executive committee, the food committee, and the programming committee. On the programming committee, we suggest programs that the programming director might want to introduce, that we would like to see happen.

I do tutoring. I’ve tutored a couple of children of the staff and a couple of staff members, particularly the staff members who are going for different nursing degrees.

Now the activities director has to go to a seminar, and she asked me to take over the exercise session occasionally. Now I’m scheduled to conduct the exercise class every other week. Whatever I can do to stay busy. We have a very dedicated group who loves Scrabble. That’s an activity I enjoy because you have to use your brain. Anything that keeps me busy, I’ll do.

Every day here there are activities. We have people who come and give lectures. There’s always something going on. If I want to be involved in it, I can be.

EL: It reminds me a lot of my grandfather. He’s been retired as long as I can remember, but retirement for him still meant taking on new jobs, working, even if it wasn’t quite as much as before, and staying active. He just turned 90 in November.

EBG: That’s right, tomorrow I’m hitting the big 9-0!

EL: Do you have any celebrations planned?

EBG: Not really. I have a very small family. My sister lives in Washington, and I live right on the outskirts of Washington, but she’s housebound. I have a nephew who lives in New York City. We were going to go out to dinner on Saturday with my sister and her three caregivers. But we decided to put off the celebration until my nephew comes down later. Two of my main Scrabble buddies here wanted to take me out to lunch, but we’ll wait until the weather clears up. Nothing big.

I’ve never made much over birthdays. I’m just happy to be here. Happy to be in the land of the living, or as one of our residents says, “I got up this morning on the green side of the dirt.” I’m happy to get up every morning on the green side of the dirt.

EL: Did you have a favorite type of math to think about or talk about with students?

When I started at Cal State LA, I was doing the traditional things: calculus, real analysis, and functional analysis. But one year they appointed me to teach the class for math teachers at the elementary school level. That was when the “new math” was just blossoming. And I got very interested in the new math. I became familiar with the goals of new math, and I thought “Wow, this is great.” There was another instructor there who was assigned to teach this class as well, and we talked to each other about the topics. When one of my colleagues discovered we were very interested in this math class, he said, “How would you like to write a textbook for new math?” We said, “Sure, we’d be happy to try our hand at it.” Our first edition came out in ’75. We didn’t make a lot of money on it, but it was fairly successful. And I got promotions out of it. It was successful enough that we did a second edition in ’78. I have those two textbooks to my credit, but by then, new math had fallen into disfavor. The teachers in the elementary school were not prepared to teach the new concepts, so they resisted, and parents didn’t know what was going on. So new math kind of fell by the wayside, and we didn’t do any new editions. It probably stayed in publication maybe three years after that. But then sales dropped off.

While I was at Cal State LA, there was a program for college faculty to go into elementary schools to talk about mathematics. I worked with that program. Along with my teaching at Cal State LA, I would go to the schools to talk to children about mathematics. I did that for three or four years. That threw me more and more into math education. I became very interested in math education and workshops for teachers. Every summer I was somewhere doing a workshop for math teachers. So I guess I drifted from pure mathematics into math education. I’m probably known more for what I did in math education than for any other area of mathematics.

EL: Do you have any advice for young mathematicians?

EBG: Keep your nose to the grindstone, and never give up. Let’s say I’m in school or in a class and I have a problem to solve, and I just can’t get it. What should I do? The next day, I go back to it and have the answer. That has happened to me throughout my career. There’s something about that brain that keeps working. I wouldn’t purposely sleep on it, it would just happen. Don’t give up. If there’s something you don’t understand, don’t give up, go back to it.

Another thing, I’m always challenging myself. I have a friend Lee Graham, and we play Scrabble three times a week, and of course he always wins. We played Monday night. I won four games and he won two games. This has never happened before! Never, in the whole time we’ve been playing! He almost always wins all games. I’ve never outdone him! Last night we played again, Granville zero, Graham 6. I I said, “Thank you, Lee. Thank you for Monday. That was a nice birthday gift. Now we’re back to normal.” He is great with words. Frankly, I play with him because it’s educational for me, even if I never win. He wins almost all the games, but I learn a lot. He worked for the state department, and he’s lived all around the world. He is really savvy as far as language and words. I don’t let it intimidate me at all. I learn from him. After he won all six games, he said “Evelyn, you’ve improved so much!” My goal is to keep this brain of mine intact. I hope my mind will stay intact until the day I die.

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. And Then What? 1:35 pm 09/5/2014

    This old world needs more people like this lady. Sounds like someone that we could all learn something from.

    Link to this

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