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The Unfailing Optimism of Dr. Gloria Ford Gilmer (1928–2021)

Tanya Moore
Josh Levy


Figure 1.

Gloria Ford Gilmer, undated.

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Chatting with a friend at a wedding reception one day, a guest’s braided hair caught Gloria Gilmer’s eye.⁠Footnote1 Her friend, unimpressed, turned to her and said, “I can’t stand that hairstyle!” “But look at his scalp,” Gilmer replied. “It’s completely tessellated with hexagons!” Her friend laughed. Gloria Ford Gilmer was known for seeing mathematics in places others did not. But she was also known for understanding the power mathematics could have in building a more just and equitable world. So the tessellations stayed with her, and within a few years became the basis for a project that aimed to bring hair braiding into the math classroom, asking not only how their geometry could help students build skills but how math could help stylists outside the classroom build community wealth. Over the course of a long career, Gilmer brought a unique vision and drive to her classrooms, to the professional spaces of the mathematics community, and to the growing international ethnomathematics movement.


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In 2022, Gloria Gilmer became the first Black woman mathematician to have her papers archived in the Library of Congress. Her career blended a lifelong effort to empower students to learn math for themselves with a spectrum of broader civil rights concerns, linking what she sometimes called “mathematical power” to a deep commitment to equity and justice. Rooted in the deep mentorship she received in the classrooms and communities of segregated Baltimore, including at the historically Black Morgan State College, Gilmer developed a pedagogy grounded in research and focused on empowerment and care. Already a leader focused on educational policy at a national level, in the early 1980s she encountered the ethnomathematics movement, and thereafter her focus turned increasingly toward global intersections of math and culture. Always, however, she remained most urgently concerned with equalizing access to mathematical resources and skills. In many ways, her work remains an innovative response to issues that remain urgent, her interventions still capable of generating enthusiasm.

The Gloria Ford Gilmer Papers at the Library of Congress, now open for research, provide a rich new resource for understanding Gilmer’s life and career, the history of the ethnomathematics movement in the United States, and its intersections with organizations like the American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America. The collection runs to tens of thousands of items, ranging from meticulous daily logs that record Gilmer’s prolific networking to her lesson plans, correspondence, research files, and extensive documentation of her committee work. Foreshadowing more recent discussions related to racial and gender inequities within the mathematics profession, the collection especially documents Gilmer’s unique ability to merge an unstoppable activism with an unfailing optimism.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1928, Gloria Ford grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, James Ford, was an immigrant from Barbados and, by the 1930s, the owner of Ford’s Grocery Store on Baltimore’s George Street. Her mother, Mittie Ford (née Hall), had been a teacher in her native Georgia, but left home to study business in New York. An obituary of Mittie Hall Ford in a 1992 issue of the Baltimore Sun shares that in New York the two had met, having two daughters in Chicago before coming to Maryland where Gloria was born, the youngest of three. The 1940 census shows the Fords living in a rowhouse in the city’s Harlem Park neighborhood, a transitioning area of West Baltimore where White residents had, just a few years earlier, finally failed in their efforts to keep out African American homebuyers, and which had become a center of the city’s Black middle class. James Ford reported working 90 hours per week in the family grocery that year, and Mittie 35. At just four blocks from home, the children spent much of their time there as well.

Gilmer later remembered Ford’s Grocery as the place she first became comfortable with math. “There,” she recalled,” I was always counting, weighing (measuring), locating items, and reasoning with customers.” Later in life, she would identify those four activities, along with playing and designing, as the core practices from which mathematics derives, and which she argued were common to all of the world’s cultural groups. In school, she encountered teachers whose mentorship extended outside of the classroom. There was Mrs. Henderson, a first-grade teacher whose simple act of placing a caring arm on her shoulder still resonated into adulthood. Miss Young, who recognized a fourth-grade Gloria’s talent and asked her to arrive early to school to tutor classmates and to help grade arithmetic papers. And teachers from Mrs. Henderson, to a high school algebra instructor, to a college calculus professor who all did double duty in her church, as her Sunday school teachers.

Gilmer’s early education, fueled by community support and peer learning, was probably as much a product of her own ambition as of the city’s segregated, crumbling public schools. While the city’s Black teachers were, on average, better credentialed than its White teachers—about 25% more had college degrees—Black children attended overcrowded schools in substandard facilities. A 1940 report by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper found students in dilapidated portable buildings infested with rats and filth, an elementary school equipped with only chemical toilets, and several schools operating in long-condemned buildings. A newly revitalized local NAACP chapter lobbied urgently for improvements, and Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall began his career as the organization’s lead attorney with a lawsuit demanding a new high school for the Black students of Baltimore County. What historians call the “long Civil Right Movement” was unfolding in Gloria’s own backyard, her classrooms a site of political activism long before she reached adulthood.

After high school Gloria enrolled at Morgan State College, a historically Black school in northeast Baltimore, and pursued a degree in math. There, in her junior year, she encountered Clarence Stephens, whom she later credited with teaching her “how to learn mathematics.”⁠Footnote2 Some of the staples of his pedagogy, flexibility with teaching methods, avoiding lecturing, and a conviction that, as Stephens later put it, “I could teach mathematics effectively to most of my students only if I were successful in protecting and strengthening their self-esteem,” later emerged as core elements of Gilmer’s teaching as well. She graduated Morgan in 1949 with a BS degree, high honors, and a math prize, placing fifth in her class.


Clarence Stephens was noted for his innovative teaching methods and was the ninth African American to earn a PhD in mathematics.

The addresses at Gilmer’s commencement foreshadowed a certain willingness to do the impossible. As a 13-year-old, Gloria had written to the Afro-American in 1941 to share her “goofy ambition” of sitting on a rainbow while painting it. Now she heard Methodist Bishop Alexander Preston Shaw exhort the graduates to perfection, and historian Merze Tate demand they not allow race to become a barrier to their betterment of a world plunged into a new atomic age, and in urgent need of their help.⁠Footnote3 She seemed prepared for a challenge.


Remarks to the graduates were highlighted in the June 7, 1949 issue of Baltimore Afro-American, an African American newspaper established in the 1890s.

Out Into the World

In the summer of 1949, the Afro-American reported that Gilmer’s application to the University of Maryland at College Park had been ignored by admissions officers, along with those of six other African American applicants. College Park, her dream school, had never before admitted a Black mathematics student. Several of the applicants chose to sue, and NAACP lawyers took up their defense. Under cross-examination by Thurgood Marshall the following year, university president Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd admitted that, outside of its law school, the university had refused admission to all qualified Black applicants to the College Park campus as a matter of policy, either diverting them to institutions like Morgan State or offering them scholarships to schools outside Maryland. In 1951 the university bowed to legal pressure and enrolled one of those students, Hiram Whittle, as the campus’s first Black undergraduate. By then, Gilmer was already wrapping up a mathematics master’s program at University of Pennsylvania, paid in part through a scholarship funded by Maryland’s segregationist legislature.

At Penn, she found herself without familiar support systems, in classes taught by professors like number theorist Hans Rademacher, from whom she received her first C in a math course. That environment, Gilmer later recalled, caused her to doubt her abilities and “the quality of my former education in an all-black setting.” But she graduated with good marks, and in 1952 began a position with the US Army, calculating exterior ballistics and bombing trajectories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground back in Maryland. Finding the work tedious, she remained only for the summer, launching into a peripatetic teaching career that had already included a stint at Hampton Institute, and now brought her to Virginia State College and then back to Morgan State. At Morgan, she coauthored two peer-reviewed mathematics journal articles with Luna Mishoe, the first to be published by an African American woman, and found encouragement to pursue further study.⁠Footnote4


The articles were the first non-PhD theses to be published by an African American woman. Luna I. Mishoe and Gloria C. Ford, “On the Limit of the Coefficients of the Eigenfunction Series Associated with a Certain Non-self-adjoint Differential System,” Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society 7, no. 2 (April 1956), 260–266; Luna I. Mishoe and Gloria C. Ford, “On the Uniform Convergence of a Certain Eigenfunction Series,” Pacific Journal of Mathematics 6, no. 2 (1956), 271–278.

In 1956, Gilmer began a PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she soon felt so isolated she began to seek out friends by chatting up other Black people she ran into on the street. By the end of 1957, she had married Jay Gilmer, the son of a prominent Milwaukee doctor who, a few years earlier, had been appointed one of that city’s first Black housing inspectors—and who would later rise to become administrator of the state’s Equal Rights Division. “Defecting” from Madison to raise their two children, Gilmer returned to the classroom, first in the public schools of exurban Buffalo and then in Milwaukee, where she became that system’s first African American math teacher. As she moved through historically Black and predominantly White institutions, Gilmer built a pedagogy grounded in a radical ethic of inclusion and care, one meant to cut against cultural frames that, as Sara Hottinger writes, assume a “normative, white, masculine mathematical subjectivity.” One of her Morgan State students later recalled a “dynamically enthusiastic attitude” that was so jarring as to be, at first, “somewhat traumatic,” calling Gilmer’s classroom manner “demanding, inspirational, and understanding” and stirring him to “never settle for mediocrity in personal achievements.”

Returning to tertiary education, in 1965 Gilmer became the first African American mathematics instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, taking a second job as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s first Black woman mathematics instructor the following year. In 1973, she began a PhD program in curriculum and instruction at Marquette University. Though feeling unsupported by her advisor and by the institution, the work she did at Marquette allowed her to take a step back, to consider how curricular design and systemic inequities structured classroom instruction and helped produce racial differences in math achievement. Gilmer had long made the National Association of Colored Women’s Club’s motto, “lifting as we climb,” a constant refrain. Now she began to codify her teaching philosophy, thinking more critically about her earliest years in front of the blackboard when she mimicked her own teachers and blamed her students when they failed. “In order to inspire my students,” she insisted, “I must like them. In liking them, I shall seek to understand them in the same manner as I feel compelled to understand the subject I teach.” It was a humanizing philosophy, one that emphasized personal relationships in the classroom and the impact of teachers who expect their students to succeed, and which urged instructors to empower students to support their own learning. Gilmer ultimately became the first Black woman to graduate from Marquette’s School of Education, her commitment to leaving open the doors she had walked through stronger than ever.

By 1979, PhD in hand, the Gilmers were on the move again. Gloria took an associate professorship at Atlanta University and then one at Morehouse before moving to Washington, DC to serve as a research associate for the National Institute of Education. By 1980, she had also become the first Black woman on the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America, and that role brought her into math classrooms all over the country. By 1983, she was in China, touring classrooms with 57 other educators at the behest of the Chinese Mathematical Society, not entirely impressed with what she saw but clearly moved by mathematical stories of the Great Cultural Revolution. Gilmer described math studies that were once “protracted” and “infused with political content,” curricula “designed for immediate social needs” taught with intuitive instruction that built on student experiences, and math courses that combined algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Encountering the foreign through the lens of her own experiences, as travelers often do, she began to imagine what useful things she might extract for classrooms back home.

The Gloria Gilmer of the early 1980s, driven by unhesitating ambition and unusual extroversion, had added an array of new skills to her repertoire: in education policy and grantmaking, in committee work and curricular design, and in activism.

Building Power through Connection

In 1968, the James Brown hit “I’m Black and I’m Proud” signaled a time of transition from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power era. Gilmer’s career, and her activism, bridged both periods. In 1963, she attended the March on Washington. As she moved into college-level instruction in Milwaukee, her teaching and scholarship began to evolve in concert with wider movements dedicated to Black pride and a reclamation of identity, culture, and community. On campus, Gilmer increasingly merged advocacy for her African American students with sharp critiques of institutional racism. In a 1976 speech before the UW-Milwaukee Board of Regents, for instance, she insisted that the university’s struggle to retain African American students stemmed from their “academic and social isolation,” and called for a suite of changes ranging from multidisciplinary evaluations of minority student achievement to the elimination of dull remedial courses that foreclosed self-directed discovery and stifled innovative thinking. Off-campus, she became involved in a dizzying array of community organizations, her activism often intersecting with her educational concerns.

Gilmer was a dedicated Episcopalian who described her ministry as “anti-racism wherever it leads me.” She was a soror, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha since her time at Morgan State. She was a member of the YWCA, and in 1970 became one of the framers of a revision to its mission statement, an added phrase committing the organization “to eliminate racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.” In the following decades, Gilmer would take on leadership positions with the National Council of Negro Women (as chair of their Commission on Education) and the National Urban Coalition (as member of their Technical Advisory Board). She served as an advisor on the National Urban League’s Project PRISM, a national education reform project. She joined the Milwaukee Ethnic Council and the Haiti-based Desgranges Foundation, and attended meetings of the Milwaukee Socialist Party well into her 80s, according to a web profile she drafted in 2000.

Always, Gilmer refused to compartmentalize her faith, commitment to social justice, and focus on solutions for improving educational outcomes. Instead, they combined to bring an intersectional lens to her work no matter where she found herself. When she saw civil rights organizations working to address classroom issues without the aid of professional mathematicians, she offered her aid as an academic. When she saw the academic community working fruitlessly to solve problems for minorities in mathematics, she offered her cultural expertise. By 1986, Gilmer had launched the Family Math Project, an initiative designed to help preschoolers from low-income, primarily African American families develop math skills by enabling their parents to develop their own math literacy. It was a research-driven approach that aimed to help families integrate mathematical concepts into their daily lives, empower parents to teach math to their own children, and foster computer literacy for everyone in the process. It was also a staple of Gilmer’s activist philosophy, a nuts-and-bolts solution to systemic issues of racism and poverty, grounded in a faith that both could ultimately be solved. As she had argued at Marquette, children could only “grow and flourish in all the beauties of their inner spirits and outer gifts” when racism had been “eliminated,” and she clearly believed the elimination of racism was possible.

Increasingly, as Gilmer moved from institution to institution, found opportunities to observe the teaching of others, and deepened her commitment to social justice, she came to recognize how inequities in math achievement had become a natural byproduct of institutional racism. In the mid-1970s, she wrote that one of the major functions of America’s educational system had been to “channel privilege—to determine who will receive wealth, power, and prestige.” African American students, she argued, “are painfully aware that the white university was not made to accommodate them.” If it had been, she believed, universities would have created learning environments in which Black students could also “achieve academically and develop intellectually and emotionally.” It was a problem she believed could be solved.

Remediation efforts were one of her targets. Gilmer argued that remedial mathematics courses limited academic advancement and disempowered African American students by appealing to “the areas of their greatest weaknesses and at the dullest level of the subject.” She advocated for strategies that inspired a desire for knowledge and self-directed explorations that allowed students to focus on “areas of personal strength rather than repeating and failing the basics.” Students had to be empowered, and connected—first to their peers, then to their teachers. The use of standardized testing was another issue. The tests, she insisted, had often served as gatekeepers, steering African American students into remedial classes, and were inadequate measures of student learning. Recognizing that test designers and administrators may not have intended to discriminate, Gilmer nevertheless argued that “neutral and objective tests which are administered for one purpose but which lead directly to racist policies are racist,” and that scores could not be properly interpreted without a recognition of disparate access to resources and differences in curriculum implementation. In a Cold War political environment increasingly concerned over students losing their edge in STEM education, and often turning to standardization for help, Gilmer insistently embraced individuality and cultural distinctiveness as the true routes to effective education.

At times, Gilmer’s problem solving even verged into techno-optimism. Already seeing disparities in student access to computers in the 1980s, she argued that, “unless steps are taken now, ‘new’ inequities will exacerbate current ones.” For all children, she saw computers as a tool to strengthen and complement instruction and application, one that might help them apply math to simulations of real life problems. Computers, she believed, could empower students to solve ever more complex problems, to use “inductive approaches that motivate mathematical conjecturing,” and to discover graphical interfaces that would help sharpen their intuition and foster a liberating mathematical experimentation. Always attuned to the equitable distribution of educational resources, she envisioned a brighter future where democratized computing equalized access to mathematical skills. But she envisioned a darker future as well, one where an innovative new resource again fell largely into the hands of those that needed it the least.

Gilmer shared these critiques and solutions widely, through publications and workshops, conference papers and conversations. And in 1984, she made another international trip, this time to Adelaide, Australia, for the Fifth International Congress of Mathematical Education (ICME-5). There she presented a paper on the IEA Mathematics Study, an international math assessment test, offering suggestions for future improvements like using the test to inform curriculum planning and professional development. Her attendance at ICME-5 would prove to be fortuitous. Already a professional with a national profile, Gilmer was about to encounter a framework that would help to crystalize her work and activism, and expand her ministry to a global platform.

Ethnomathematics and the Beginning of a Global Movement

As Gilmer was building a pedagogy grounded in a pursuit of equity and the recognition of the classroom as a cultural and political space, Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, a Brazilian mathematics educator and historian, was articulating an approach to make mathematics instruction more accessible to a broader population. D’Ambrosio felt that greater math literacy could serve as a counterweight to inequities among individuals and communities, and contribute to creating a more peaceful society. Inspired by the knowledge and practice of mathematics in Brazilian indigenous cultures and grounded in his own research in the history of mathematics, he found himself at the cutting edge of research on the intersection of mathematics and culture. At ICME-3 in Germany in 1976, D’Ambrosio had organized a panel entitled “Why Teach Mathematics.” That panel helped create a new field in mathematics education, ethnomathematics. Eight years later, at ICME-5, D’Ambrosio was delivering the plenary address, entitled “Socio-Cultural Bases for Mathematical Education,” in which he argued that mathematics instruction should be grounded in the social and cultural context of students.

D’Ambrosio’s remarks must have captured Gilmer’s interest right away. He seemed to be giving voice to many of the ideas she had already been formulating. Gilmer later summarized her reaction to the speech:

“Before that, like Bertrand Russell, I too had experienced the cold and austere beauty of mathematics. Early in my career, as a student and later colleague of Clarence Stephens, I learned to value the rigor, precision and resilience of mathematicians and to appreciate the social and humanitarian values implicit in this scholarly community such as respect, solidarity and cooperation. Then as now, my modes of understanding, learning styles, intuition, emotions, and use of mathematics are all closely bound to my cultural heritage both as an African American Christian and as an active member of the mathematical community. Now, however, I am more aware of the immense potential in the development and acquisition of mathematical knowledge by the inclusion of the concept of ethnomathematics. Ethnomathematics as a field of study connects mathematical concepts, their acquisition and application through cultural origins. In this way, ethnomathematics paves the way for reform in mathematics education and new horizons in mathematical research.”

D’Ambrosio framed math as a cultural product, an insight that resonated with Gilmer’s own experiences and observations, and with her prior research.

One tenet of ethnomathematics that especially spoke to Gilmer was its assertion that the cultural neutrality of mathematics was a myth, an insight that opened the door to almost limitless explorations of how mathematical ideas might be iterated throughout the world. It also supported her existing commitment to helping students connect math to their everyday lives. D’Ambrosio’s distinction between learned mathematics and ethnomathematics proved useful to her as well. Learned mathematics refers to the formal math most often taught in schools, a body of knowledge that developed slowly over time but largely became disconnected from the social environment of most students. Learned mathematics, D’Ambrosio argued, serves to reinforce privileged pathways into higher education, foreclosing practical applications that could be meaningful to a broader population of students. Ethnomathematics, on the other hand, examines how different cultures conceptualize, communicate, and apply mathematical ideas in their everyday life. The opportunity to introduce students to the social context of mathematics and make lessons more culturally relevant, Gilmer believed, could help build student self-confidence and demonstrate how math could contribute to their success. By 1985 at the National Council Teacher of Mathematics (NCTM) meeting in San Antonio, Gilmer, D’Ambrosio, and Rick Scott of the University of New Mexico decided to form a study group in ethnomathematics. Gilmer would serve as its first chair.

Figure 2.

Gloria Ford Gilmer at her Milwaukee home, c. 1970s.

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One of Jill Gilmer’s earliest memories of her mom was of her sitting on a stool in their kitchen, talking on the phone. “That was her favorite spot,” she recalled. “Just sitting on that little stool. She was usually laughing. I mean, she loved people. I call her an extreme extrovert, which is a little unusual for mathematicians. But she absolutely loves people.” One of Gilmer’s great gifts was as a builder of relationships, and she brought those skills to bear in her longtime role as chair of the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics (ISGEm), a position she held from 1985 to 1996. Gilmer developed an increasingly global footprint, traveling to places such as Haiti, Budapest, Australia, the Soviet Union, Quebec, Bahia, and China as she built and sustained relationships with other organizations in the mathematical community. Her influence allowed for the cross-pollination of ideas and the formation of new partnerships to inform curriculum development, shift assumptions about what underrepresented students could achieve, and share solutions that could broaden participation in mathematics.

Already an experienced hand at committee work, Gilmer began to bring her ethnomathematics commitments to professional mathematics organizations as well. In 1985, she was appointed chair of the AMS-MAA-AAAS joint Committee on Opportunities in Mathematics for Underrepresented Minorities (COMUM) by American Mathematical Society president Julia Robinson. Expanding Gilmer’s work as director of the MAA’s Blacks and Mathematics program, COMUM’s charge was to broaden the membership of the sponsoring organizations and increase participation by underrepresented minorities. “The real issue for people of color,” Gilmer argued in 1995, “is the intellectual climate that claims ‘this cannot be done by you.”’ To change it, she proposed a suite of changes, from publicizing the work of successful achievers, to connecting minority mathematicians to larger professional communities, to developing a directory of minorities in mathematics-related careers and holding information sessions at regional and national meetings. Gilmer also began to coordinate a series of skits, held at Joint Math Meetings as a way to dramatize issues related to gender and racial awareness. Often, she sought out opportunities to interject ethnomathematics research into professional mathematics spaces, and to leverage her inquisitive and inclusive nature to share ideas that could shift the culture of mathematics.

Her work with curriculum development began to intersect with ethnomathematics as well. “Mathematics curricula,” she wrote, “have been slow to change, due partly to a failure to separate the universality of truth of mathematical ideas… with the cultural basis of that knowledge.” The need had become urgent, she insisted, “to multiculturalize the mathematics curricula.” In 1984, Gilmer had founded a small consulting business, Math-Tech, which helped her bring ethnomathematics theories into classroom practice through the development of new programs and evaluations of existing initiatives. Often, Gilmer served as a charismatic interpreter of discoveries made by others. She was fond of sharing the stories she first heard from D’Ambrosio at ICME-5, of the geometrical patterns passed down through generations of indigenous boat and house builders in the Amazon. She spoke about Marcia Ascher’s work on a game called M trere played by the Mori people of New Zealand, and Paulus Gerde’s examination of diverse arithmetical relationships in Angolan sand drawings. In 1993, she served as project director of a major textbook series published by Addison-Wesley, entitled Building Bridges to Mathematics: Cultural Connections, perhaps her most comprehensive curation of ethnomathematical approaches adapted for practical classroom use. And she traveled the country and the world, observing classrooms wherever she could and arguing that mathematics could be found everywhere in everyday life, in functional artifacts ranging from fishing nets and quilts to baskets, chimneys, and calculating devices.

Gilmer developed her own lesson plans as well. One introduced the concepts of mean, variation and standard deviation by examining comparative shopping costs for food at different markets, and further introduced statistical ideas by having students engage in studies of professional journals related to their major. Another showed how the UPC codes found on products could be translated as symbolic representations of a number and product. She designed lessons centered around origami cranes, and the distances, angles, and paths Michael Jordan followed as he traveled down the court to make a basket. Like her ethnomathematics colleagues, she found herself always in search of the perfect metaphor, the everyday activity or object that silently harbored generations of mathematical wisdom.

Figure 3.

Gilmer’s notes following a presentation on mathematics and hair braiding, c.1990s. Gloria Ford Gilmer papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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So in the spring of 1998, Gilmer joined Ron Eglash before an excited, overflow crowd to talk about the geometry of African American hairstyles. It was the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting, held that year in Washington, DC, and 40 minutes prior to their start time the large room had nearly filled to capacity. Organizers, with growing concern over the city’s fire codes, were ultimately forced to turn some of the curious away. Gilmer was animated. She roamed the crowd and pointed out patterns in the hairstyles of audience members. She showed images of tessellations, spirals, concentric circles, symmetries, and fractal patterns in braided hair. She insisted that students were capable of drawing mathematical concepts from culture and nature, and emphasized the power of math skills to generate community wealth. Eglash traced braiding patterns back to African material culture, and storyboarded a computer math lab students might use to explore them in the future, a descendant of which is still in use by students today.⁠Footnote5


See the Cornrow Curves project at:

“The idea,” Gilmer later wrote, “was to determine what the hair braiding and hair weaving enterprise can contribute to mathematics teaching and learning what mathematics can contribute to the enterprise.” Meticulously researched in hair salons and in beauty magazines, hair braiding became the metaphor Gilmer was most known for, one that linked the beauty of natural hair to the politics of inequitable access to mathematical knowledge, and to the economics of community business. It still resonates.


Mathematicians often use power as a synonym for an exponent’s multiplier effect. Gilmer offered her own definition of mathematical power: the ability to “discern and investigate through a variety of mathematical methods the mathematical relationships observed in patterns and structures in one’s own surroundings.” Other intersections of math and power structured much of her life and career: the inequitable distribution of educational resources by race and class, the underrepresentation of minorities in professional mathematics spaces, the earning power math skills can bring to individuals and communities, the hegemony of a mathematics curriculum that purports to be culture neutral, the geopolitical consequences for a nation falling behind in STEM education. Gilmer also held her own kind of power, an influence born of a radical empathy and charismatic extroversion, and the ability to view deeply ingrained issues like institutional racism as just another problem to solve, if she could only make the right calculations.

What makes Gilmer’s work particularly compelling is how relevant it remains. Jill Gilmer has said that she wishes her mother’s views had been more widely understood and embraced, particularly her underlying beliefs that the capacity to learn is within everyone and that each person has something to contribute. Like a good teacher, much of Gilmer’s legacy can be found in the ways she inspired people to increasingly higher levels of achievement. Yet, of course, inequities still persist in mathematics achievement. “It feels like we’re kind of still back where we were,” Jill has said, “trying to figure this thing out. So that’s a little bit frustrating but, that’s the beauty of having her papers at the Library of Congress. Maybe the word will get out and we’ll start to realize it’s not as hopeless as it looks, there’s work in this area that’s already been done.”

Figure 4.

Gilmer in front of the US Supreme Court and Library of Congress during Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration.

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In 2020, the AMS established the Claytor-Gilmer fellowship in order to further excellence in mathematics research and help generate wider and sustained participation by Black mathematicians. It is named for William S. Claytor, the first African American man to publish a research article in a peer-reviewed mathematics journal, and Gloria Ford Gilmer.


Figures 1, 3, and 4 are courtesy of Gloria Ford Gilmer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Figure 2 is courtesy of Jill Gilmer.

Photo of Tanya Moore is courtesy of Albina Khazan.

Photo of Josh Levy is courtesy of Tamaki Levy.