African American Pioneers in Social Science

Thursday, January 30, 2020

In honor of Black History Month, IMPAQ recognizes the accomplishments of prominent African American researchers, economists, mathematicians, and sociologists, whose pivotal contributions to their fields make our work possible today.

We are impacted each day by the advancements these individuals led in research methodology, social sciences, mathematics, and technology. Read on for our list of just a few of the many African American leaders whose work we deeply respect and admire.


Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr.

A trailblazer in economics and race relations

Considered by many as the first African American to achieve prominence in the field of economics, Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris is also known for his heavy influence on black radical and neo-conservative thought in the United States. Harris' many works on race relations, such as The Black Worker, laid the groundwork for future African-American studies. His essays in The Journal of Political Economy have played a vital role for economists worldwide studying the history of economic doctrines. (January 17, 1899–November 6, 1963)

Dr. Andrew Felton Brimmer

The first black member of the Federal Reserve Board

Dr. Andrew Felton Brimmer was a Louisiana sharecropper's son and the first black member of the Federal Reserve Board. He is known for leading efforts to reverse the country's balance-of-payments deficit. Dr. Brimmer taught at Harvard and held several high-ranking posts in Washington, DC. Later in his life, Dr. Brimmer spoke frequently about how government policies did not support economic programs for African Americans. (September 13, 1926–October 7, 2012)

Dr. Edward B. Montgomery

Labor economist, academic leader, and national political adviser

Dr. Edward B. Montgomery is a nationally recognized labor economist and the ninth president of Western Michigan University. He has been an academic researcher for more than 35 years and played major roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Throughout his career, Dr. Montgomery has focused on state and local economic growth, wage and pension determination, savings behavior, productivity and economic dynamics, social insurance programs, and unions.

Dr. Margaret C. Simms

A researcher dedicated to increasing economic opportunity

Dr. Margaret C. Simms is an expert on the economic well-being of African Americans. Her current work focuses on low-income families, with an emphasis on employment. Dr. Simms is an Urban Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. She also served as vice president for governance and economic analysis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic studies, where she held positions of increasing responsibility throughout her 20-year tenure. "I became an economist because I wanted to examine the factors that contribute to inequality and help identify ways to increase opportunity," Dr. Simms told the Urban Institute.

Dr. William E. Spriggs

Chief Economist leading Federal labor policy

Dr. William E. Spriggs is a Chief Economist at the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and professor in the Department of Economics at Howard University. In 2009, Dr. Spriggs was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy at the US Department of Labor. Previously, he led economic policy development and research at the Economic Policy Institute, the National Urban League, the US Department of Commerce, the US Small Business Administration, the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress, and the independent federal National Commission for Employment Policy.

Image source: American Economic Association

Dr. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe

Researching and recruiting women in STEM

Dr. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe is an accomplished economist with expertise on the intersection of labor economics and feminist economics, including a special focus on African American women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Dr. Sharpe holds three master's degrees in applied mathematics, operations research, and economics, and earned her Ph.D. in economics and mathematics in 1998 at Claremont Graduate University. Expanding upon her research and academic successes, Dr. Sharpe co-founded the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) and is the founder of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity, and Race (WISER), which she currently leads.

Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

A leader in evidence-based social discourse

Dr. Roland G. Fryer is a leading economist, well known for his empirical research studies exploring how government policies and practices affect the lives of African Americans. One of his most influential studies is "Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School," which found that racial disparities in test performance were most plausibly caused by inequities in primarily-black school systems. Dr. Fryer has authored or co-authored more than 60 peer-reviewed articles in academic journals and received tenure as an economics professor at Harvard at the unusually early age of 30 years old.


Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

A pioneering feminist thinker 

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper was a writer, educator, and public speaker who was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate, a Ph.D. in history from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924. Dr. Cooper's work is a staple of early American sociology and is frequently taught in sociology, women's studies, and race classes. Her first and only published work, A Voice from the South, is considered one of the first articulations of black feminist thought in the United States. (August 10, 1858–February 27, 1964)

Dr. Patricia Hill Collins

Award-winning author at the intersection of race and gender

Dr. Patricia Hill Collins is a sociologist known for her research examining issues of race, gender, social class, sexuality, and nationality. She served in 2009 as the 100th President of the American Sociological Association and was the first African American woman elected to this position. Dr. Collins is the Charles Phelps Taft Emeritus Professor of Sociology within the Department of African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati and is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. Her first book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, won the Jessie Bernard Award of the American Sociological Association for significant scholarship in gender, and the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Dr. William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois

An influential founder of racial studies

W.E.B. Du Bois was a renowned sociologist, race scholar, and activist. He wrote several books on sociology that are still studied today, particularly on how sociologists examine race and racism. His essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, is a pivotal work in African American literature, and his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, dismantled the idea that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Du Bois was also a founding officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a founder and editor of its magazine, The Crisis. (February 23, 1868–August 27, 1963)


Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Jackson

Scholar and activist for equity in aging

Focusing her career on the process of aging in black communities, Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Jackson was one of the first black editors of an American Sociological Association journal. Dr. Jackson's worked pushed back on the concept that aging occurred in a vacuum and argued that aging outcomes were linked to broader social issues and inequalities such as housing and transportation. Beyond her academic research, Jackson saw herself as an activist who "sought to use her work as a tool for liberation," reports author Delores Alridge in her book, Imagine a World: Pioneering Black Sociologists. Dr. Jackson was an early member and organizer in the Association of Black Sociologists, which now offers a scholarship in her name. (February 24, 1932–January 28, 2004)

Mathematicians & Statisticians

Dr. Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid

Prolific author on probability theory and physics

Dr. Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid was a mathematician and theorist who worked extensively on probability theory, Markov chains, and statistics. He published more than 65 papers and articles and several books during his career. Dr. Bharucha-Reid advanced research in the fields of probability theory and physics, while collaborating with mathematicians and scientists around the world. Throughout his career, Dr. Bharucha-Reid worked to create opportunities and increase recognition for minorities and women in the field of mathematics and within academia overall. (November 13, 1927–February 26, 1985)

Dr. David Harold Blackwell

World-famous statistician and Presidential adviser

Dr. David Harold Blackwell was the son of a railroad worker in Southern Illinois and become a world-famous statistician. In 1965, Dr. Blackwell became the first African American elected to the National Academy of Sciences, whose members advise the President and Congress. He was also the first African American tenured faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Blackwell was a pioneer in game theory and wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, Basic Statistics. (April 24, 1919–July 8, 2010)

Image source: Black Past

Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer

An advocate for black women in mathematics

Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer was a beacon for other women interested in pursuing careers in mathematics. After attending the Fisk University in Nashville at age 15 and majoring in mathematics, Dr. Falconer earned her master's degree in science at the University of Wisconsin and Ph.D. in mathematics from Emory University. During her long teaching and leadership career at Spelman College, she initiated several programs to nurture African American women who wanted to excel in mathematics and received many honors for her work. (November 21, 1933–September 19, 2002)

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

A mathematician who powered NASA's voyage to the moon

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a mathematician who contributed to NASA's aeronautics and space programs during the early application of digital electronic computers. She conducted technical work at NASA for decades and she is known for her computerized celestial navigation accuracy. While at NASA, Johnson calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights, including the missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, and plans for a mission to Mars. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was the subject of the book and movie, Hidden Figures.


Dr. Linda Darling-Hammod

National leader in educational opportunity

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, where she founded the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and served as the faculty sponsor of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. In addition, Governor Gavin Newsom named her as one of the nation's most prominent education researchers and appointed her to head California's State Board of Education. Dr. Darling-Hammond is a past president of the American Educational Research Association and received its awards for Distinguished Contributions to Research, Lifetime Achievement, and Research-to-Policy. She has authored and edited more than 25 books and 500 articles on education policy and practice.

Image source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

Illuminating cultural awareness in education

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings is an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education and researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. A past president of the American Educational Research Association, Dr. Ladson-Billings has earned many awards and accolades for her research in the best practices of those who successfully teach African American children and how Critical Race Theory applies to education. Her groundbreaking book, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” is one of her defining contributions.

Dr. William Julius Wilson

National Medal of Science Awardee

Currently a Harvard professor, Dr. William Julius Wilson has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Education and the Institute of Medicine. He is also past President of the American Sociological Association and is a MacArthur Prize Fellow. In 1998, he was awarded the National Medal of Science for "his innovative approach to studying urban poverty, his dedication to the proposition that rigorous social science change will improve his fellow American's lives, and his advocacy of policies which reflect more accurately what we have learned from research and which therefore take a broader point of view with respect to the interactions of race, class, and location, " according to the National Science Foundation.



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