A Black History Month for All of Us

This is a ScIU guest post by Brett Jefferson, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Department of Mathematics. 

From Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space, to Dr. Sylvester James Gates, a theoretical physicist who published the first comprehensive book on supersymmetry, to Marcellus Neal, the first African American graduate of Indiana University, African Americans have pioneered much of our nation’s scientific- as well as broader-history.

In February of 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced Negro History Week: a time to honor African Americans who have shaped the world as we know it. Carter expressed to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia) that African Americans should both study their history and boast of it–that this very history is going to inspire us to greater achievements. Certainly it has!

Despite the importance of Negro History week and all that it signified, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that American Presidents endorsed the annual celebrations. With this in mind, and in the midst of the current political climate–one that is not particularly tuned to cultural sensitivity or the scientific process alike–it seems to be the perfect time to meditate on African American history, reflect on where we are today, and to contemplate our role in creating the history of Indiana’s community.

Many will walk the IU–Bloomington campus and notice the Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center. The name of this building highlights the first male and female African American students to graduate from IU. Marcellus Neal graduated in 1895 with a B.A. in Mathematics, and Frances Marshall graduated in 1919 with a B.A. in English. In fact, IU’s history is full of African American firsts. Preston E. Eagleson  was not only the first black member of an Indiana University intercollegiate team in 1893, but was also the first to receive a Master’s degree from IU (M.A. in Philosophy in 1906). The very first African American woman to enroll at IU was Carrie Parker (1898). An interesting piece is written about her here. Dr. Adam W. Herbert (pictured below) was IU’s first black president. Bill Garrett was the first African American to play basketball at IU. He then led an Indianapolis high school basketball team to a state championship victory, served in the military, and became the Assistant Dean for Student Services at IUPUI. Of The Divine Nine historically African American fraternities and sororities, Kappa Alpha Psi was one of the firsts, and was founded right here in Bloomington in 1911. Kappa Alpha Nu (predecessor to Kappa Alpha Psi) is believed to be the first African American collegiate fraternity.

Left: A formal headshot of Dr. Adam W. Herbert. Right: A group photograph of Dr. Adam W. Herbert, Brett Jefferson (author), Dr. Erikka Vaughan, and Dr. Byron Gipson.
Left: Dr. Adam W. Herbert, IU’s first black president. Right: Dr. Adam W. Herbert, myself, Dr. Erikka Vaughan, and Dr. Byron Gipson at a luncheon for the Adam W. Herbert fellowship recipients, 2009. WOW!

When we read more about these firsts, it is important to remember that being the first means doing something that has never been done before. There was no guidebook and there were no mentors to fill those ‘what-to-do-now’ gaps that often occur in a person’s journey. As they encountered challenges and hardships, every prominent figure in African American history relied on something deep within himself or herself, and forged his or her own path to the finish line. It’s something that we should remember today. Whether we are studying diligently to earn a coveted degree, spending hours on our research, having hard conversations with our mentors or advisors, worrying about the job market, or discovering the new principles that govern the universe–we must look to these people for inspiration and be reminded that we ourselves will also become firsts.

I’ll share my own story as an example. I grew up in a black neighborhood in Baltimore. Upon completing my Bachelor’s in Mathematics at Morgan State, a historically black university, I came to Indiana University with the dream of getting my Ph.D. in Mathematics. After three years and some life experience, I graduated with a Master’s degree in Mathematics and began my current endeavor as a Ph.D. student in Mathematical Psychology within IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. My days in the lab now center on applying tools from algebraic topology (which studies characteristics of abstract spaces) to human perception modeling.

A group photograph of seven members of the Mathematical Psychology Lab, sitting around a conference table.
Members of the Mathematical Psychology Lab at Indiana University, 2015.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I came quite close to becoming a “first” in African American history. After graduating with a Master’s degree in Mathematics, I found out that there had never been an African American Ph.D. recipient in the Mathematics department. I would have been the first. That news sparked a number of emotions, but one stood out in me: awkwardness. Not only was I a black man in a predominantly white school, not only was I a city slicker living in a rural small town, and not only was I attempting to bridge two very disparate areas of science, but I also had just missed the bus to being listed as the first African American mathematics Ph.D… The first! If there were ever worldly signs that pointed to one not belonging, these were them. Being a misfit, it can feel like a lonely and arduous road to attaining those things that mean the most to us. For me, however, remembering how the firsts overcame those trials and awkward situations that threatened to balkanize their resolve pushes me forward. I hope that in your own journey, you can also find rejuvenation from African American history and inspiration from the firsts.

Edited by Rachel Skipper and Ed Basom.

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