Elbert Cox ’25, Mathematics

Elbert Cox
Elbert Cox, photo from Cornell Chronicle

It’s sometimes easy to forget how recently the world of higher education looked very different. The size of that world, for one thing: in 1925, just 28 doctoral degrees in mathematics were granted in the United States. One of them went to Elbert Cox of Cornell. He was remarkable not only for the quality of his work, but also for being the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in math.

In fact, in 1925, fewer than 50 African-Americans had ever earned doctoral degrees. And yet, by 1943, less than two decades later, another 23 African-Americans would have earned their doctoral degrees at Cornell. Cox was leading the field, and his accomplishments would make it possible for those who came after him to achieve.

Mathematics was only one of Cox’s passions. Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1895, he was also a gifted violinist. He was so talented, in fact, that he was offered a spot at the Prague Conservatory of Music. It must have been a tempting opportunity to a young man from the Midwest, especially as Europe’s racial climate at the time offered somewhat more freedom to a black man than America’s.

But Cox felt that mathematics was his true calling, so he went to Indiana University, where he earned straight As in his math courses.

After a stint in the military during World War I, Cox enrolled at Cornell as an Erastus Brooks Fellow. He also spent a semester as a fellow at McGill University, and upon his graduation in 1925, he became the first African-American to be inducted into the American Mathematical Society.

Despite his talents, Cox found it hard to carve out a research career in his field. He joined the faculty at Howard University, a historically black college, and devoted most of his career to teaching. By all accounts, he was a gifted and dedicated educator who inspired many of his students to follow in his footsteps.