Remembering and Celebrating UT Austin’s First Black Math Ph.D.s
For decades, the number of Black students pursuing STEM degrees has been increasing nationally, but in the 1960s in UT Austin graduate programs, it was a different story. The small group of African Americans pursuing science and math doctoral degrees then were true trailblazers. This month, the College of Natural Sciences learned of the recent passing of one of them, doctoral mathematician Llayron Clarkson, who was 97. In addition to being an alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin's mathematics Ph.D. program, Clarkson was a former top academic leader at Texas Southern University.
Clarkson and his peers at UT that decade were among the first Black Americans to earn Ph.D.s in mathematics anywhere in the southern U.S. One of his classmates, Vivienne Malone-Mayes, was even among the first five Black women nationally to secure a Ph.D. in mathematics. These mathematicians' advances happened at a time of stubbornly persistent barriers: UT Austin classrooms had been segregated throughout nearly all of the institution's history prior to their arrival on campus, and many dormitories, restaurants and other businesses continued to practice segregation.
Clarkson earned his doctoral degree in mathematics from UT Austin against this backdrop and, like other Black peers in STEM in the 1960s, went on to leave a mark in the field and in higher education.
Following a stint as a public school teacher and service in the military during World War II, where he participated in campaigns in Northern Africa and Europe, Clarkson came to UT and studied analysis in the graduate program.
After securing his Ph.D., he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University early in his career, before returning to Texas and Texas Southern University in Houston, also his alma mater. At TSU, he held many high-level positions, including head of the Department of Mathematics, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Director of Institutional Research. After retiring from TSU, he was chair and CEO of Clarkson Aerospace Corporation.
At least two other Black mathematicians secured degrees at UT Austin in the 1960s as well. When Clarkson's classmate Malone-Mayes graduated, she was the first Black woman to earn a mathematics Ph.D. from UT Austin and the fifth to do so anywhere in the U.S. She accepted a position at Baylor University, becoming the first African-American faculty member at that institution. Malone-Mayes would spend the rest of her career at Baylor as a popular and inspirational educator, earning recognition as Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year within her first few years. She also served as director-at-large for the Texas section of the Mathematical Association of America. She passed away in 1995.
Alfred D. Stewart also completed his UT math Ph.D. in the 60's—after securing four previous bachelor's and master's degrees at Howard University, University of Wisconsin and Rusk College—and joined the faculty at Prairie View A&M University. Over the next few decades, he would work his way up to become head of the Department of Mathematics and a Distinguished Professor. He also served as the state chair for the Texas Academy of Science. He spent his career at PVAMU as an inspiration to more than four generations of students before his death in 1998.
With resilience and a shared commitment to students and learning, each of these Longhorns left a distinguished legacy and is an important part of Texas Math's history.