Diversity Dialogues - David Harold Blackwell

By Marilyn Mays posted 03-02-2021 13:30:40


David Harold Blackwell, First African American Member of National Academy of Science

By Marilyn Mays


David Harold Blackwell, an African American mathematician, was born to a railroad worker and his wife in an integrated community in Centralia, IL, in 1910. As a young student, he attended mixed schools where he demonstrated considerable intellect and, as an adult, broke many racial barriers in mathematics and statistics and related fields, including game theoryprobability theoryinformation theory, and Bayesian statistics. He received numerous awards and recognitions, but not the least of them was being the first African American elected to membership in the United States National Academy of Science. 

He entered the University of Illinois at age 16 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938, and then, in the next three years, he earned both the master’s (1939) and doctoral (1941) degrees from the University. He secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, PrincetonNew Jersey, where John von Neumann took particular interest in his work. Students from the Institute had historically attended lectures and engaged in research at nearby Princeton University; however, Blackwell was prevented from doing so because of his race, so he left. 

When Blackwell left the Institute for Advanced Study to work as an instructor at another institution, he only applied to historically Black colleges and universities, thinking that he would be limited to teaching at Black colleges because of his race. He did, however, apply for a position at the University of California, Berkeley, where statistician Jerzy Neyman interviewed him. While Neyman supported his appointment, Griffith C. Evans, the head of the mathematics department, objected to the appointment citing his wife's concerns. It was customary for them to invite all the department members over for dinner, and she was not going to have an African American in her house.

However, Blackwell did receive an appointment in the mathematics department at one of the most prestigious African American universities in the country, Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1944. Three years later, he became head of the mathematics department there at the age of 28. 

In 1954, the University of California, Berkeley, had a change of heart, or possibly, of personnel. Blackwell was invited to join their faculty, where he became that institution's first African American tenured professor. He served as chairman of the statistics department there for four years before becoming a professor of mathematics. He retired in 1988. 

Of his many innovative endeavors, one was the application of game theory to military situations. Another was his independent development of dynamic programming. Of his many publications, at least one is still considered a classic today: Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions (1954; with M.A. Girshick).

While he was honored for his work in many ways in his lifetime, two of his most prestigious recognitions include being elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1976 and receiving the John von Neumann Theory Prize in 1979.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia (2020, July 4). David Blackwell. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Childs, K.J.C. [@DrKChilds]. (2019, February 2). Let’s celebrate the beauty of Black History Month through learning about Black mathematicians. Day 2 of 28 #blackhistorymonth #history #February #mathematics [Tweet]. Twitter.