Remembering the Cornellian Who Broke Racial Barriers in Math

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By Alexandra Bond ’12

Mathematician Elbert Cox, PhD 1925, is a legend in his field: when he graduated from Cornell nearly a century ago, he became the first Black person to receive a doctorate in math, not only in this country but anywhere in the world.

And after breaking that barrier, he went on to a lifetime of teaching and mentorship, holding the door open behind him for others to follow.

“At that time, it was hard for nonwhite people to be admitted to just about any institution—but from the very beginning, Cornell has had a legacy of accepting students of all races,” observes math department chair Tara Holm. “So in many ways it was incredibly remarkable for Cox to have earned his PhD, and in others it was just business as usual at Cornell.”

Cox studied theoretical math; as Holm explains it, “he used abstract mathematical structures to better understand patterns in numbers.”

Cox in academic regalia
Cox in academic regalia.

But he also had wide-ranging interests, taking courses in physics, botany, zoology, chemistry, and even dairy science.

Though the workload and rigors of grad student life were challenging, notes a 2000 biography of Cox in American Mathematical Monthly, “these were years that he remembered fondly.”

Those who knew Cox—who passed away in 1969 at age 73—have described him as a conservative, patient, and reserved man who always wore a tie to dinner. Born in Evansville, Indiana, he grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood in an era when racial tensions ran high.

Despite attending segregated schools where resources were woefully insufficient, he became a strong proponent of education—likely due to the influence of his father, a longtime elementary school teacher and principal.

Despite attending segregated schools where resources were woefully insufficient, he became a strong proponent of education.

Cox was one of just three African Americans in his undergraduate class at Indiana University, where he earned a degree in math (and where the word “colored” was emblazoned across his transcript).

“In class at Indiana, while everyone else was in the lecture hall, the Blacks had to sit out in the hallway with the door open so they could hear,” recalls Elbert Lucien Cox Sr., one of Cox’s four sons, noting that despite the unequal treatment, “my father received an A in every mathematics course he took.”

A century after he graduated, the school honored Cox with a 2017 story about his accomplishments, acknowledging the racism he'd faced during his time on campus and noting, "Cox (understandably) may have had mixed feelings about IU by the time he left."

It also observed that—given Ezra Cornell and A.D. White's forward-thinking opinions on educational access—"the founder and the first president of Cornell University made sure that Cornell would be a perfect fit for Cox."

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In 1929, Cox joined the math faculty at Howard University, where he would go on to teach for nearly four decades. During his tenure, he was instrumental in expanding the department and supervised a record-breaking 30 master’s students.

A page from Cox's PhD thesis
A page from his PhD thesis.

Back then, Howard didn’t have a PhD program in math, but in 1975—ten years after Cox’s retirement, and thanks in large part to the groundwork he’d laid—it became the first historically Black college or university to establish one.

The university memorialized him with the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund, aimed at encouraging Black students to pursue math at the graduate level.

“My father was not one to wear his achievements on his sleeve, so to speak,” recalls Cox Sr.

“He wouldn’t go around talking about them; in fact, he didn’t do a whole lot of talking in general. But when he did say something, it always made an impact.”

As Holm notes, people of color remain severely underrepresented in mathematics. Of the 1,003 PhDs granted to U.S. citizens in the fields of statistics, biostatics, math, and applied statistics in 2021–22, only 30—less than 3%—went to Black or African American individuals.

And that disparity prevails across many STEM disciplines, says Cox’s grandson Elbert Lucien Cox Jr., a program executive in astrophysics at NASA.

“In his time, my grandfather was the only African American in a field of Caucasian students; he had to break through barriers, and he did it with excellence,” Cox Jr. says. “His legacy—his hard work, what he was up against, and how he pressed on—has instilled in me the same drive to be the best in my profession.”

He had to break through barriers, and he did it with excellence.

Elbert Lucien Cox Jr.

When Cox received his doctorate, he was only the second Black man to graduate with a Cornell PhD in any subject; the first, Thomas Wyatt Turner, had earned his in biology four years earlier.

When Cox’s advisor realized his status as a pioneer, he urged him to submit his dissertation to universities in other countries—a common practice at the time, since granting PhDs was a relatively new endeavor in the U.S.—to ensure his achievement could not be disputed.

Though Cox’s work was rejected by multiple institutions in Europe, likely due to his race, it was accepted by the Imperial University in Sendai, Japan, solidifying his accomplishment.

Within two decades, some two dozen African Americans had followed in Cox’s footsteps by receiving PhDs from Cornell—including seven in math or physics.

(All images provided.)

Published February 15, 2024


  1. Sheryl Wragg, Class of 2023

    I absolutely LOVED this story and have been trying to fathom how Dr. Cox had the strength of character and spirit to persevere against all those odds. Sitting out in the hallway for math lectures (not even seeing the blackboard?) is unbelievable. What a great man.

    • Elissa, Class of 1999

      I completely agree. What a gracious and strong man. I wish we knew more about him.

  2. Randall Nixon, Class of 1978

    “Any Person, Any Study”. I am so proud of my undergraduate alma mater for giving this man the recognition that he is so richly deserves.

  3. Kelvin Peek

    “He had to break through barriers, and he did it with excellence.”

    – Elbert Lucien Cox Jr.

    This article underscores the profound impact of dedicated mentors, especially for those in underrepresented groups. Dr. Cox’s commitment to teaching and guiding so many students demonstrates the power of investing in the next generation.

    As a Black professional in clinical research, I’ve seen firsthand how a supportive network can make all the difference, particularly in early career stages. Dr. Cox’s legacy is a testament to the life-changing influence of those who foster growth and opportunity.

  4. Herbert Goldman MD, Class of 1954

    Inspirational indeed, but when I arrived at Cornell in 1954, there were fewer than 1% black americans among the thousands of freshmen. 8 total, perhaps. There are multiple reasons for this underrepresentation, most out of Cornell’s control. Much later public officials were accused of racism for appearing in blackface in the University of Virginia yearbook. For me that pales into insignificance compared to the lack of real black faces in the book. (Pun intended).

  5. Diane Matyas

    So glad to learn that Dr. Elbert Cox was the “Jackie Robinson” of Mathematics, by way of his tenacity and brain power. Thank you to his family and Cornell for sharing his story.

  6. MASAHARU KOMIYAMA, Class of 1981

    The name of the Imperial University in Sendai, Japan, which accepted Cox’s PhD work, was formally the Tohoku Imperial University due to 1907 Imperial Decree. Tohoku Imperial University, now Tohoku Univeristy, has been known for its Open Door Policy that resemle to Cornell’s, and admitted three women students in 1913, first time ever as a Japanese Imperial Univeristy. No wonder the Imperial Univeristy recognized Cox’s work per se, with no considerations to other unimportant attributes.

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