William Claytor, a mathematical genius


William Claytor
Date: 
Sat, 1908-01-04

William Claytor was born on this date in 1908. He was an African American mathematician and educator.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, William Waldron Schiefflin Claytor earned his A.B. and M.A. from Howard University. He went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933. Claytor was a brilliant student. While at Penn, he won a Harrison Scholarship in Mathematics in his second year, and took the most prestigious award offered at Penn at that time, a Harrison Fellowship in Mathematics, in his third and final year of graduate studies. Claytor's dissertation delighted the Penn faculty, for it provided a significant advance in the theory of Peano continua-—a branch of point-set topology. He was the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, following Elbert Cox (Ph.D., Cornell, 1925) and Dudley Woodard, Sr. (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1928).

Upon completion of the Ph.D., Claytor accepted a teaching position at West Virginia State College where he remained for three years. In 1937, Claytor was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship and pursued post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan where he had great promise as a researcher in mathematics. When a position opened, however, the University of Michigan would not offer it to him, apparently afraid of the the possible reaction. The student newspaper took up the issue but to no avail.

The mathematician Kline tried to get Dr. Claytor made a Fellow at Princeton University, but Princeton's administration said the students might object to a "culud" person. Claytor got the same reaction from other research institution, which meant he could not get a position with other topologists during his time, a serious drawback to his work. After encountering this such prejudice and after leaving Michigan, Claytor apparently lost interest in research.

During World War II, Claytor served in the U.S. Army (1941-1945) where he taught in the field of Anti-Aircraft Artillery from December 1942 through December 1944.

In the 1930s and 1940s the math was filled with racist mathematicians. R.L. Moore was one of the dominant figures in the same field of mathematics as Claytor's--Topology. Moore was so racist that, even in the 1960s and 70s, he prohibited blacks from attending his classes.

Dr. Claytor did make presentations at meetings of the American Mathematical Society, yet was never allowed to stay in the hotel where the meetings were held. Instead, local Blacks had to find him lodging. For years afterwards, many tried to get Claytor to participate in meetings of the American Mathematics Society, but he had grown bitter and refused.

It was here in 1941 that Claytor first met David Blackwell at Chanute Field, near Urbana, Illinois. Blackwell was increasingly aware of the immensity of Claytor's mathematical genius. In 1947, the year Blackwell became chairman of the Mathematics Department at Howard University, Claytor was brought to Howard.

Soon after, Claytor met and married Dr. Mae Pullins, a lover of mathematics though her Ph.D. was in psychology. Claytor remained at Howard until his retirement in 1965.

With 18 to 21 teaching hours per week, and, later, as chair of the Department of Mathematics at Howard University, Dr. Claytor worked for years as a researcher but published only two papers: Topological Immersion of Peanian Continua in a Spherical surface, in the Annals of Mathematics 35 (1934), 809-835, and Peanian Continua Not Embeddable in a Spherical Surface, Annals of Mathematics 38 (1937), 631-636.

William Claytor died in 1967. In 1980, the National Association of Mathematicians instituted the Claytor Lecture, a lecture series in honor of William W. Schieffelin Claytor.

References:
Ms. Bernice Boddie [cousin to Dr. Claytor],
Pioneering African American Mathematicians

To Become A Mathematician

Person / name: 

Claytor, William Waldron Schiefflin

| More