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Gloria Ford Gilmer Becomes First Black Woman Mathematician to Have Research Papers Included In Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division

Black History was made after the Library of Congress received the life work of ethnomathematics Gloria Ford Gilmer in its internationally recognized collection.

The inclusion of the acclaimed scholar makes her the first Black woman mathematician to have research papers displayed in the Congress’ Manuscript Division.

The academic, who pushed the boundaries of race and math scholarship, is also the only Black woman mathematician in the 12,000-piece Manuscript Division collection — helping the library advance its efforts to be more inclusive of women and people of color to the math, science, and technology collections.

Gloria Ford Gilmer
Gloria Ford Gilmer (Photo: Twitter/@AriesaSandino)

Born in Baltimore on June 25, 1928, the Milwaukee native and HBCU alumna was a teacher, international researcher, and leader in the field of ethnomathematics, the study of the relationship between mathematics and culture.

She developed her love for math by working with her father in his store.

“Weighing the meat, converting things from ounces to pounds, and making change, and all of those things that are mathematical,” Jill Gilmer, the scholar’s daughter, said to WISN.

After graduating from Morgan State University with her bachelor of science degree, she attended the University of Pennsylvania for her master of arts degree and her doctorate from Marquette University.

The collection, donated by her daughter Jill Gilmer, was received by the library last year. Josh Levy, a historian of science and technology at the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division, said he reached out to the family after reading Gilmer’s obituary. The researcher died in 2021 at the age of 93.

Jill Gilmer told “Good Morning America” she was “blown away” when she learned about the inquiry.

“When the Library of Congress reached out to me, I was blown away … it was interesting to see that all the work that she had done was being recognized. It was really an honor,” Jill Gilmer said. “I never thought that someone in our family would be in the Library of Congress,” she added. “And it’s just very exciting, and I’m very grateful.”

By June 2022, Levy’s team came to Gilmer’s daughter’s home to see the collection stored in the basement.

The librarians were able to identify 64 banker’s boxes worth of documents, digital files, photographs, and VHS tapes that encapsulated her extraordinary life and research.

Now, the nation’s most prestigious library will house the collection for perpetuity, making it accessible for historians and researchers to review.

During her career, Gilmer had a focus on diversity and inclusion, lifting her racial identity in many of her research papers and how she taught math.

She has always been a history maker, becoming the first Black math instructor for the Milwaukee Public Schools system, the first Black math instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the first Black person to serve on the Board of Governors for the Mathematical Association of America.

Gilmer traveled across the world, teaching in countries like Haiti, Russia, China, and Australia, and she has contributed to multiple textbooks.

Her daughter shared the groundbreaking ways she explored math as a teacher, introducing ethnomathematics into her instruction. She explained the discipline, saying, “It’s just a way of looking at the practical applications of math within your own culture. She would use cultural examples as a way to engage the students in the subject matter.”

“So, for instance, she said there’s math in basketball because the athletes estimate the angle that they’re shooting the ball at. There’s math as you’re tracking your route from school to your house. There’s math in almost every aspect of life,” Jill Gilmer said.

One of her most interesting studies unpacked arithmetic that goes into the way Black women braid hair.

Brittany Rhodes, the founder of Black Girl MATHgic, was inspired by her work and included it in her subscription box service for girls interested in math.

“I found a website, and Dr. Gilmer’s work is featured on their website, particularly her studies on the mathematics of hair braiding, the geometry behind the mathematics, the geometry in hair braiding, and I was fascinated,” Rhode explained.

Gilmer’s work will be stored alongside other scholars like John von Neumann and Claude Shannon. Still, Levy says Gilmer’s work stands alone.

“Gloria Gilmer’s work really intertwines mathematics and civil rights in a way that’s not entirely unique to her. It does reflect the interests of the ethnomathematics movement. You really get a sense from her papers this is someone who cares very deeply about mathematics, and this is someone who cares very deeply about justice,” Levy said. “We don’t have any collections that reflect the history of this movement. So she really is the first collection that we have that documents the findings of the ethnomathematics movement.”

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