By Jaime Seltzer
Euphemia was born Martha Euphemia Lofton in 1890 in Washington, D.C., the only child of a schoolteacher and dentist. She attended Smith College and majored in mathematics with a minor in psychology, graduating in 1914; and she earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago in 1930.
Euphemia then began to teach in the D.C. public school system, working in schools for African-American students in varying age groups. She primarily taught mathematics, but she also taught English literature – putting her hand to whatever work was required. As her career advanced, she eventually decided to seek her doctorate.
Euphemia became the first African-American woman to hold a doctorate in mathematics in 1943 for her Ph.D. thesis The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences. After she had earned her doctorate, Euphemia was able to obtain a professorship at more than one local college, and even established the mathematics department at Miner Teachers College. She would continue to teach in the public school system for forty-seven years.
Euphemia’s Doctorate was a first for black, American women, but her real work began after she retired as a schoolteacher, when she was appointed to the Washington D.C. Board of Education.
Prior to 1954, it was common for schools to separate black and white students in the United States. After 1954, it was no longer legal; but school administrations were wary of what might happen if their schools were truly integrated. White parents who heard that their children would now be attending school with minority students fled the city in droves, and city administrations feared they might have to close schools down. Some administrators feared fights could break out between students of different races. Sadly, many school administrators were also deeply racist, apart from any practical concerns. As is so often the case when ideology clashes with reality, the community found ways around the law.
Some parents responded to the increased pressure on administrators to keep white children from fleeing the city by placing more pressure on the school for special favors for their children – easier assignments, special privileges – and many schools gave in. Washington D.C. created dual enrollment zones, so that parents could be within the district of several different schools simultaneously, allowing parents to choose to send their children to a school in an area with more families of similar racial background. Finally, there was the track system, which purported to place children in separate tracks and separate classrooms based on ability, but which tended to be along lines of “manners, diction and social class, if not race explicitly.” D.C. schools were still segregated, despite the new laws. It looked good on paper and sounded good in the press, but it wasn’t really any good at all.
Euphemia sought to change that. In an age where being on the school board was an appointed rather than an elected position, and where the pay was negligible, she fought tooth and nail to eliminate these (only slightly) stealthier acts of racism. She was on the Washington D.C. Board of Education for seven years, then headed it until that became an elected position; and in that time, she managed to dismantle most of the machinery piece by painstaking piece.
Euphemia was a Catholic who believed deeply in service to one’s fellow man. She served as the first vice president of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, on the Committee of International Social Welfare, as secretary of the Executive Committee of the D.C. Health and Welfare Council, the National Conference on Christians and Jews, the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and a dozen others.
On her death at age 90, she bequeathed a tidy sum to Catholic University, where she studied for her doctorate. Today there is still a scholarship at the university in her name.
Teresi, D. (1980, August 2). Euphemia Lofton Haynes. In The Washington Post. Retrieved October 2, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/08/02/euphemia-lofton-haynes/0822f27d-d7c8-43fb-9a59-dd24ab303d05/
Williams, S.W. (2001, July 1). Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes, first African American Woman Mathematician. In Black Women in Mathematics. Retrieved October 2, 2015 from http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/haynes.euphemia.lofton.html