By LaKeshia N. Myers
“It could be old math; something that looks at the problem numerically and not theoretically. Math is always dependable.” These words were spoken by Taraji P. Henson in her iconic performance as NASA computer, Katherine Goble Johnson, in the movie “Hidden Figures.” I thought about this poignant scene in the movie, when I learned of the passing of Dr. Gloria Gilmer, a Milwaukee resident, who was the first African American to teach high school math in Milwaukee Public Schools, the first African American on the mathematics faculty at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and the first African American lecturer in the math department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
A leader in the field of ethno-mathematics, Gilmer’s work proved distinct relationships exist between culture and mathematics. One such example, was her study of tessellations in traditionally Black hairstyles. In this particular study, box braids (box-shaped tessellations resembling brick walls) and triangular braids (tessellations resembling equilateral triangles). While these hair stylists do not generally think of what they do as mathematical, Gilmer detailed the many mathematically-based patterns in these and other types of braiding and how they are found in nature, such as the tessellating hexagons found in braids that resembles the flesh of pineapples and the honeycombs in beehives. From the results of this work, Gilmer was able to aid math teachers in creating useful lesson plans that showed students the everyday application of math in their lives.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Gilmer moved to Milwaukee in the 1950s. While she made many “firsts” in her career, she was also a sought-after researcher and lecturer. Between 1981 and 1984, Gilmer served as a research associate with the U.S. Department of Education. Around this time, she also gave the National Association of Mathematicians’ Cox-Talbot lecture, which was named in honor of the first and fourth African Americans to receive PhDs in mathematics.
As I reflect on the state of education in Wisconsin and across the nation, I am reminded that at her core, Gilmer was a teacher. As I think of the decreasing number of teachers in general, and African American teachers specifically, I hope as others learn of her body of work, more African Americans join the education workforce. Too many young people, are choosing to work “education adjacent”—for youth serving organizations, but not willing to take the time to become certified educators. For those that may read this and think they are called to become an educator, know you are needed and we veteran teachers and students eagerly await your arrival.
As Gilmer once said, “Education is the gift of influence; the ability to inspire. Never forget to pave a way for the next generation; we must lift as we climb.”