From Talk by Lee Lorch, AMS Special Session, Cincinnati, January 1994

In AMS Volume "A Century of Mathematical Meetings" edited by Dr. Bettye Anne Case

If you would like to read an abstract of this article first, click here

Dr. Lee Lorch
Department of Mathematics
York University
North York, Ontario M3J 1P3  Canada

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I am delighted to have been invited to reminisce on our meetings. In a way this is an appropriate place for me to do so. I went to my first AMS meetings while a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.

During Thanksgiving 1935 I hitchhiked from Cincinnati to Lexington, Kentucky, for this purpose. There I encountered Fritz John and his wife, recent refugees from Nazi Germany. They invited me to sleep on the couch in their living room, which I was glad to do. Leon Cohen was also then at the University of Kentucky, and also very friendly to a beginning graduate student. Their friendship, which was to become long-standing, still evokes a warm glow.

That Christmas the AMS winter meeting was in St. Louis. Again I hit the highways, now to make my first visit to the city where my parents had met and married. En route, J. L. Doob (whom I had come to know while using the Columbia University mathematics library) picked me up. As you know, he later became President of the AMS. In this capacity, he designated me as his representative to the Mathematical Sciences Conference Board on the occasion when another commitment prevented his personal participation. This was the only time any AMS President has appointed me to any committee or function. The membership has twice elected me to serve as a member-at-large of the Council, following my nomination by petition, so I don't feel neglected by my colleagues.

Back to St. Louis. In those days even the winter meetings were what we would now regard as quite small. There was room enough for the American Economics Association (AEA) to hold its meetings also at Washington University at the same time. By chance, I picked up the flyer announcing an AEA luncheon for 85 cents at which there were to be three speakers. The following morning there was a correction. The three speeches were cancelled and the price raised to $1.00. I have always wondered whether the initial listing (or threat) of three speeches had been intended as a ploy to prepare the way for the then high price for a luncheon.

Another experience with a meeting luncheon has stuck in my mind. Still a graduate student, I ventured to an AMS meeting at Columbia University while home in New York during a vacation. Of course, students didn't go to the associated luncheon, held at the faculty club. On the way back to the afternoon session, a couple of us passed by just as D. J. Struik, whose wonderful talk yesterday at this meeting evoked a standing ovation, was descending the club steps. I asked the usual stupid question: ``How was the lunch?" A happy smile lit up his face: ``Far better than I expected; the food was mediocre."

Not all events connected with AMS meetings were that cheerful or that light. Some of the things of which I'll speak now will require a willingness to face ourselves as we were. To prepare for this, I have chosen a few lines from the official poem read by its author, Maya Angelou, at the inauguration of President Clinton:

``History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.''

The welcome, or, rather, lack of welcome, to minorities and women lasted over a long period of time at our meetings. Unless we are willing to face this in these days of backlash, we'll be living this all over again. Here are some examples from the AMS and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

This was first made a matter of record in 1951 when I was teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a leading historically Black university. The Southeast regional meeting of the MAA took place with Vanderbilt University as host. There was an official banquet at which the national President of the MAA was the speaker. Using rather vulgar language, the chair of the local arrangements committee, a Vanderbilt professor, said that no tickets would be available to Negro members. I'm using the polite version of the word he employed.

On April 20, 1951, my department sent a letter to the Board of Governors of the MAA and (well aware that the AMS behaved no better) also to the Council of the AMS, describing the situation and making certain suggestions. Then, with a covering note, I sent it to Science, there being no AMS or MAA outlets for letters then. They appeared on August 10, 1951. (See Attachment 1.) It was reprinted (together with quite a bit of related material) as an appendix to the book Black Mathematicians and their Works [1].

The April letter's first paragraph formulates what would appear to be minimum obligations owed by any organization to its members. Further on, it explains why such conditions need to be made explicit and then continues by citing precedents in place in other professional organizations. Finally, it establishes that the by-laws we requested were entirely practicable even in terms of the law and practices of that time. (See p. 91, [3].)

Unfortunately, neither the AMS nor the MAA has ever pioneered in facing these issues. Other major organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, including at least one which was entirely southern-based (Southern College Personnel Association), were already behaving much better than we were. However, the demand from the Mathematics Department at Fisk University, supported by colleagues elsewhere, did bring some action. Policy statements were adopted calling for meetings to be run so that all could participate. That was a step forward, but a rather gingerly one. The concept of participation seems to have quite different meanings for different people. The statements included wording to the effect that where accommodations are provided for some they will be provided for all. But what does that mean?

This necessitated a second letter on December 17, 1951. (See Attachment 2.) It recorded that the Fisk Department was pleased at the anti-discrimination affirmation by then adopted by the MAA, but pointed out that implementation was lacking and repeated the need for the procedures already requested in the April 20, 1951, letter (Attachment 1). This time the letter added some AMS history to emphasize the need for definite, unambiguous, enforceable policy.

It records, e.g., that ``When the Society met at the University of Georgia in 1947, not one Negro was present." After I wrote that letter, I learned that there was more to the story than that. Actually, one had wanted to participate. This was J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., present in this room, who, many years later, was elected to the AMS Council and, more importantly, to the National Academy of Engineering.

In 1947 Wilkins was a few years past the Ph. D. he had earned at the University of Chicago slightly before his nineteenth birthday. He received a letter from the AMS Associate Secretary for that region urging him to come and saying that very satisfactory arrangements had been made with which they were sure he'd be pleased: they had found a ``nice colored family" with whom he could stay and where he would take his meals! The hospitality of the University of Georgia (and of the AMS) was not for him. This is why the meeting there was totally white.

In 1951 I would be informed by the Secretary of MAA's Southeastern section that in all the twenty years in which he held that post not a single Black mathematician had attempted to participate in any way in MAA meetings in that region --- until my Fisk colleagues and I did so that year, only to be excluded from the official banquet addressed by the MAA national President.

The University of Georgia figures again in this same period in another example of AMS insensitivity to its Black constituency. In 1951 the AMS sold its library to the University of Georgia, which was the highest of six bidders. A careful search of AMS records does not disclose any assurances given --- or even sought --- that all AMS members, regardless of race, would be able to use it. This was at a time of intense segregation mandated by Georgia state law. (At the other four U.S. institutions bidding, access would not have been a problem.)

In that period, David Blackwell, then at Howard University, later to become the first Black member of the National Academy of Sciences, the first on the AMS Council, the first (and only) to serve as a Vice President (now no longer active in AMS), attempted to attend an AMS meeting in the Washington area. He drove to the meeting, but it took only twenty minutes for him to decide to turn around and drive right back home.

W.W.S. Claytor, a distinguished point-set topologist, suffered even more unpleasant experiences at AMS meetings, with the result that he became unwilling to attend any. The two letters following reveal much about both the universities and the AMS in that time. The first letter is to Virginia Newell, who, as an editor of Black Mathematicians and Their Works [1], had sought information from the late Walter R. Talbot, himself an early Black PhD in mathematics. He, in turn, forwards a letter written by Claytor's widow, a university professor in another discipline:

Dear Mrs. Newell:

I was just about to give up on getting a write-up on Claytor and tell you that I had lost count on the number of times I had been promised the requested information. Then the enclosed material came yesterday as the mailing cover will show. I have made some pencil marks on the papers. I remember when Claytor was on a post-doctoral at Michigan and they had a vacancy for which he was qualified. They would not offer him the position, and the student newspaper took up the issue but to no avail. I believe that incident in discrimination was one of the main chilling, if not killing, points in the research career of a brilliant mathematician. There are references in the literature to his work, but he lost his spirit. I wish Mae had included that item, but I wouldn't want to burden her with more questions or requests. Needless to say, I hope you can find a way to include Mae's contributions on Claytor. He definitely belongs among the top few of our research persons even with his short career of doing research. His spirit was broken by discrimination.

Good wishes always.

Walter R. Talbot

Dr. Talbot,

I am sorry about being late with this but it is just difficult for me to write about Bill. I am still at the point where I do not like to go back and think. In order to get much of this material, I had to go to what I call our memory books and looking at pictures and sort of reliving Bill; it just hurts a bit too much. I hope this is O.K. There is so much I just cannot put on paper. Even writing about Bill and his presentation at the Math Society, I thought about the days Bill used to tell me how owing to the Black-White mess, he had to stay at a private home when the others were at the hotel where the Association met. Over the years when the color-line became less, he never would attend any more meetings. Kline used to come to see us periodically and try to get Bill to go with him but I guess the hurt went too deeply with him. After he left, I found old papers and letters he had when Kline was trying to get him in Princeton as a Fellow and whew, again it was the color mess. At Princeton, the administration said the students might object to a ``culud" person which was a laugh, they would never have known it. I do hope what I have written is O.K.

[Mrs. William Claytor]

The Canadian and US governments have apologised, as indeed they should, for the internment of their citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. I know of no plans to apologize for the generations of slavery and discrimination inflicted upon those of African descent. Some day there will be an African country with the same economic and political clout as contemporary Japan. Then we can look forward to similar apologies to the descendants of Africa. But our mathematical organizations could apologize for past behavior before then.

Time went on and episodes continued. I remember yet another, in 1960, when A. Shabazz and S.C. Saxena, both on the faculty of Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta), and their graduate student W.E. Brodie were subjected yet again to jimcrow treatment at the spring meeting of the Southeastern Section of MAA. This, it should be noted, was several years after AMS and MAA commitments to the contrary. They had not been warned in advance that such discourtesy would be in store. The three left in protest.

And so in 1969 the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) came into being to address the needs of the Black mathematical community. This was a turbulent period. A group of more or less left-oriented mathematicians established the Mathematicians Action Group (MAG) that same year. We were motivated largely by concern over the Vietnam war, the militarization of mathematics, the lack of democracy in the AMS, the existence of racism and sexism, and related social issues as they impinged on mathematicians and vice versa.

This led to the liveliest Business Meeting (New Orleans, January 1969) that the Society has ever had. I noticed Everett Pitcher smiling just now when I made that remark. He was at that time AMS Secretary and was sporting a beard; more of that in a moment. In the summer of 1968 there had been what an official commission of enquiry was later to denounce as a police riot. This was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Richard Daley, the father of the present Mayor, was Mayor then. The police were called out against grass roots delegations, including one involving mathematicians, there to protest the US government's undeclared war against Vietnam. The wild and brutal behavior of the police shocked the world: massive use of tear gas, random and vicious beatings of demonstrators, onlookers and passers-by. Anybody with a beard was beaten.

What did all this have to do with the AMS? Our next spring (regional) meeting was scheduled for Chicago and a great many of us were determined that the AMS should not go about ``business as usual." So MAG, of which I was a member, decided to call upon the Society to move the Spring 1969 meeting away from Chicago in protest. MAG designated me to introduce such a motion at the January 25, 1969, AMS Business Meeting. Secretary Pitcher's report on that Business Meeting is included as Attachment 3 [2].

Well over 400 members attended that Business Meeting, an enormous contrast to the typical attendance. After extensive debate, the motion to move the upcoming meeting that I made on behalf of MAG passed decisively. It called upon the AMS Executive Committee to move the meeting, since the business meeting itself lacked the power to do so. That Committee had rejected earlier an individual request to make the move, but fortunately recognized the feeling among the members and complied. The new venue, by the way, was Cincinnati.

MAG brought other current issues formulated in five resolutions to the New Orleans Business Meeting, these via Ed Dubinsky who is also at this meeting. The texts of these resolutions, which for technical reasons could not come to an immediate vote, are included in Attachments 3 and 4. The AMS Council voted by 29--1 to dissociate itself from these resolutions and introduced Resolution B, which it regarded as contradictory to the five MAG resolutions. (See Attachment 4.) It then held a hasty referendum, simultaneously calling upon the membership to defeat the five and adopt the allegedly contradictory Resolution B. (See Attachment 4.) And that is what happened. No time for discussion was allowed. I submitted a letter on these resolutions and their handling which the Notices refused to publish. It then came out in the MAG Newsletter with an explanation of the context. (See Attachment 5.)

I could say a lot about this, but I'll restrain myself, except for comments on Resolution 5, which read:

``Whereas the shortage of mathematicians in North American Universities is different and greater among black and brown Americans than among whites, and whereas this situation is not improving, be it resolved that the AMS appoint a committee composed of black and third world mathematicians to study this problem and other problems concerning black and third world mathematicians, and report their conclusions and recommendations to the Society.''

Just imagine! The Council called for the defeat by a vote of 29-1 of such a resolution. And offered no substitute. No wonder NAM was established that same year. Fortunately, with the growth of members' demands and the existence of NAM, changes began. Eventually, the substance of that resolution was adopted. Resolution 4 also rose from the ashes of defeat as the current Notices letters section now attests.

The spirit of Resolution 5, representing sensitivity to the anguish of the Black community, can be found in another lively Business Meeting. This had its roots in the establishment in 1972 of a reciprocity agreement with the South African Mathematical Society. Strong objections were made when this became known. I am not aware of all of them, but I recall a letter from Gail Young to the January 1974 meeting of the AMS Council to which I had just been elected. I moved that the agreement be cancelled and a lively discussion ensued. From the observers' seats James A. Donaldson, Chair of the Howard University Mathematics Department and later a Council member, emphasized that Black members of the AMS could not ``avail themselves fully and equally of the privileges of membership in the South African Mathematical Society". Donaldson stressed that the AMS would be inflicting another insulting discrimination on Black members and predicted that many would not wish to remain members under such offensive circumstances.

Ultimately, my motion to cancel the agreement passed. But more was to come. At a subsequent meeting, the Council (despite strong objection from some members) decided to eliminate all reciprocity agreements and institute individual foreign memberships in their stead. (See Attachment 6.) This would have taken the sting out of the anti-apartheid stance that the cancellation of the agreement with South Africa had placed on record. Fortunately, the Bylaws required securing the consent of a Business Meeting when a new class of membership is created.

Postponed from the August 1976 Business Meeting because of vagueness, the Council proposal was debated --- and defeated --- in the January 1977 Business Meeting, a very vigorous gathering. The members were in no mood to soften the anti-apartheid implications of the cancellation of the South African agreement, nor did they wish to lose their participation rights in mathematical societies abroad as a result of cancellation of all reciprocity agreements. So there is a genuine function for serious business meetings; they don't all have to be pro-forma.

History knows many turns. Now South Africa has a government led by those imprisoned or exiled by the apartheid regimes. So, on May 3, 1994, I wrote to the AMS officers asking them to put before the Council a proposal to offer the South African Mathematical Society a reciprocity agreement and recounting some of the foregoing background. Somehow or other, the Secretary thought that he could just do it, without reference to the Council. My letter was not circulated, nor was the item placed on the agenda. However, Vice President Jean Taylor, apprised of this, raised the issue. On her motion the Council authorized the establishment of this reciprocity agreement.

Now the Society is in the happy historical position of having deliberately distanced itself from apartheid South Africa and then having promptly offered its friendship to a South Africa distancing itself from its gruesome past. The vote in the January 1977 Business Meeting gave us this opportunity.

If I have not referred explicitly to the important role of our women colleagues as a collective in the Business Meetings of our Society, it is because Alice Schafer, an early President of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) has done so at this session, not for want of appreciation. They as individuals, and the AWM as an organization, have added much to the profession, including our meetings and the leadership of our organization. The programs and discussions they have organized have raised essential issues and mobilized activity. I have mentioned NAM, but not enough. These two organizations bring systematically before the AMS and the MAA activities and views which would otherwise die on the vine if raised at all.

What they have done and do is needed by and is beneficial to the entire Society. This is obvious enough in terms of combatting discrimination, encouraging affirmative action to overcome past discrimination, and developing activities to these ends. But they bring also a spirit of democracy embracing all our activities.

Just one example: Alice Schafer recounted how Mary Gray, founding AWM President, opened meetings of the Council. These meetings had been completely closed, no uninvited observers permitted. Her insistence on the right to observe what is being done in our collective name has established that right for the entire membership and helped create a more open Society, even if democratic norms are yet to be fully realized. Now those of us who are not on Council can observe and even contribute to the discussions.

It has been an arduous process, one in which the end remains elusive yet. The atmosphere has changed. No longer would we meet where jimcrow rules or where overt sexism is proclaimed. There is recognition of the obligation to meet where all our members can be comfortable, safe, and welcome. This was demonstrated by the overwhelming agreement to move the January 1995 meetings away from Colorado when that state adopted an amendment removing human rights protections from homosexuals. How different was that discussion from those of earlier years when some of us sought decent treatment for our Black colleagues!

True, the atmosphere has changed. But has it changed enough? The position of female and minority mathematicians and the opportunities for members of these communities to become mathematicians are still far short of what they should be. Unemployment afflicts our successors and we don't know what to do about it.

We can't go back to where we were, but we cannot stay where we are. Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Black America, commented often that ``White folks are always talking about how far we have come; Black folks are always knowing how far we have to go."


Black Mathematicians and their Works
V. K. Newell, J. H. Gipson, L. Waldo Rich and B. Stubblefield
Dorrance & Co., Ardmore, Pa., 1980

Secretary Pitcher's report on the January 25, 1969 AMS Business Meeting
AMS Notices, 16, 1969, 480--481

The Southeastern Section of the MAA published, in 1992, ``Three score and ten: a history of the Southeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America 1922-1992." This contains no hint of the incident of the April letter in Attachment 1. Protests over this omission led to the issuance three years later of a supplement written by a consortium of minority MAA members titled ``A history of minority participation in the Southeastern Section;" it is also available from the MAA office. The online versions are pdf files.

Attachments. Additional material

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