You may not have heard of Evelyn Bond Granville, who turned 90 last year, but you should know about her. Because she’s a fascinating woman with a fascinating history, and not just because she developed programming for trajectory analysis that was used in multiple space missions that changed the future of science and culture in the US. She was also one of the first Black woman in the United States to earn a PhD in maths, from Yale in 1949. This accomplishment was made in an era when segregation, Jim Crow, and other oppressions were still very much active, pushing Black people in general but women in particular away from higher education, let alone from doctoral programs.
She was a pioneering Black academic, and many Black women in academia continue to struggle with some of the same issues she did, illustrating that while progress moves steadily forward, we still have a long way to go. Women of colour are consistently underrepresented in academia, and they’re less likely to earn tenure-track positions, appointments, and accolades for their work, in comparison with both their male counterparts and, across the board, their white colleagues. While Granville may have broken an important barrier, she hardly put an end to racism, sexism, and oppression in academia aimed at women of colour.
But that doesn’t diminish the importance of her accomplishments as a mathematician and critical contributor to the field of racial justice. With degrees from Smith and Yale, she pushed aside the assumption that Black women didn’t and shouldn’t go to college, and her entry into professional fields further defied the notion that Black women were less capable or shouldn’t involve themselves in ‘men’s’ fields — her work played a critical role in the success of early space missions, including the first human-crewed craft launched by the US. Even Yale admits that this was not only unusual for the time, but still unusual today; of the 25 female maths PhDs between 1970 and 2000, none identified as Black.
After graduation, she worked as a professor at a number of prestigious institutions in addition to doing work for the US government, again breaking barriers and highlighting the low representation of Black women in higher math. Her work would have involved daily battles against sexism, racism, racialised sexual harassment, and other intersectional oppressions; but, in an interview with Yale in 2000, she insisted that it wasn’t at all odd that she had gone to college or studied mathematics, because her family had encouraged her and assumed that she’d pursue higher education, and she loved math.
Her accomplishment in an era when Black women were growing up under extreme oppression, and when the military was integrated only under executive order, highlights the role that family and community support can play in decisions to pursue higher education. She was also fortunate enough to live in an era when the cost of college weren’t so unreasonable, so she could afford to enter higher education, with supplements from scholarships; today, the costs are so prohibitive that even those who do receive encouragement often find trouble affording the costs of college attendance. The fact that people of colour are more likely to experience poverty and to be trapped in systemic poverty means that these issues disproportionately affect them, creating a growing gap between who can enter academia, and who can stay there, as Granville did.
Reading about her history is a fascinating glimpse into education for women in the United States in the midcentury, but more specifically, into that for Black women, and the paths available to Black professionals. She lived in an era when options began opening up, but were still limited — and she was one of the people to push at those limitations, working at a variety of firms across the aerospace industry in addition to teaching at colleges, universities, and some K-12 schools as well. While teaching was a role that had been considered traditionally acceptable for Black women (she notes that this very fact allowed her to get an excellent K-12 education, because highly educated and skilled Black folks had few other job options), being a professor and working in academia definitely wasn’t.
Granville tends to underplay her accomplishments, but I happen to think she’s a pretty amazing lady, and that we’re fortunate to have her wealth of experience to draw upon. Her work was critical, and continues to be used today, but she’s also an amazing resource for information about what it was like to be Black in America for the last 90 years, and, more specifically, what it was like to be a Black female mathematician, and how that affected her life and that of her family members. It’s so critical that we take up these oral histories now, while we still have the chance, and that we preserve these elements of Black history before it’s too late; because folks born in the 1920s and the 1930s don’t have much more time to teach us what they know and impart their experiences.
Celebrating Granville’s accomplishments highlights, for me, the fact that I didn’t even know she existed until I actively sought out information about Black women in the sciences. While I can tell you about Marie Curie and her accomplishments as another boundary-breaking researcher, before today, I wouldn’t have even known Granville’s name, let alone anything about her history.
And, in case you’re curious, the first Black women known to have earned a PhD in the US was Euphemia Lofton Hayes, in 1943.
Photo: Mathematics, Tom Brown, Flickr