Kelly Miller – 1st Black Math Grad
Kelly Miller was the sixth of ten children born to Kelly Miller, a free Negro who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and Elizabeth (Roberts) Miller, a slave.
Miller received his early education in one of the local primary schools established during Reconstruction and, based on the recommendation of a missionary (Reverend Willard Richardson) who recognized Miller’s mathematical aptitude, Miller attended the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, South Carolina from 1878 to 1880.
Awarded a scholarship to Howard University, he completed the Preparatory Department’s three-year curriculum in Latin, Greek, and mathematics in two years (1880-1882), then attended the College Department at Howard from 1882 to 1886.
During the period from 1882 to 1886, while Miller attended the College Department at Howard University, he also worked as a clerk for the U.S. Pension Office for two years. Kelly Miller was appointed to the position in the Pension Office after taking the civil service examination a test prescribed by the Civil Service Act passed during the administration of President Grover Cleveland. Miller’s greatest influence while at Howard University where his professors of Latin (James Monroe Gregory) and History (Howard president William Weston Patton, who also taught philosophy and conducted weekly vesper services required of all students).
He received a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) from Howard University in 1886. Miller continued to work at the Pension Office after graduation in 1886. He also studied advanced mathematics (1886-1887) with Captain Edgar Frisby, an English mathematician at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Frisby’s chief at the observatory, Simon Newcomb, who was also a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, and who recommended Miller for admission to Hopkins University President Daniel Coit Gilman.
Johns Hopkins University had recently become the first American school to offer graduate work in mathematics. As Miller was to be the first African American student admitted to the university, the recommendation was decided by the Board of Trustees, who decided to admit Miller based on the university founder’s known Quaker beliefs.
From 1887 to 1889 Miller performed graduate work in Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy. When an increase in tuition ($100 to $200) prevented Miller from continuing his studies, Kelly Miller left (and Johns Hopkins closed its doors to Blacks) and taught at the M Street High School in Washington, D.C. (1889-1890), whose principal was Francis L. Cardozo. [Note: One source reports that Kelly Miller left school after deciding that his best contribution would be in the areas of civil rights.]
After teaching mathematics briefly at the M Street High School in Washington, D.C. (1889-1890), he was appointed to the faculty of Howard University in 1890. Five years later Miller added sociology to Howard’s curriculum because he thought that the new discipline was important for developing objective analyses of the racial system in the United States. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he modernized the classical curriculum, strengthening the natural and social sciences.
From Howard University, Kelly Miller received a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Mathematics (1901) and a law degree (LL.D.) in 1903.
From 1895 to 1907 Miller was professor of mathematics and sociology, but he taught sociology exclusively after that, serving from 1915 to 1925 as head of the new sociology department. In 1894 Miller had married Annie May Butler, a teacher at the Baltimore Normal School, with whom he had five children.
Noted for his brilliant mind, Miller rapidly became a major figure in the life of Howard University. In 1907 he was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. During his twelve-year deanship the college grew dramatically, as the old classical curriculum was modernized and new courses in the natural sciences and the social sciences were added. Miller’s recruiting tours through the South and Middle Atlantic states were so successful that the enrollment increased from 75 undergraduates in 1907 to 243 undergraduates in 1911.
Although Miller was a leader at Howard for most of his tenure there, his national importance derived from his intellectual leadership during the conflict between the “accommodationism” of Booker T. Washington and the “radicalism” of the nascent civil rights movement led by W. E. B. Du Bois. Critical of Washington’s famous Cotton States Exposition Address (1895) in 1896, Miller later praised Washington’s emphasis on self-help and initiative. He remained an opponent of the exaggerated claims made on behalf of industrial education and became one of the most effective advocates of higher education for black Americans when it was attacked as “inappropriate” for a people whose social role was increasingly limited by statute and custom to agriculture, some skilled trades, unskilled labor, and domestic service.
In the Educational Review, Dial, Education, the Journal of Social Science, and other leading journals, Miller argued that blacks required wise leadership in the difficult political and social circumstances following the defeat of Reconstruction, and only higher education could provide such leaders. Moreover, the race required physicians, lawyers, clergymen, teachers, and other professionals whose existence was dependent on higher education. Excluded from most white colleges, black Americans would have to secure higher education in their own institutions, Miller argued, and some of them, like Howard, Fisk, and Atlanta Universities, would emphasize liberal education and the professions rather than the trades and manual arts (industrial education) stressed at Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. In the debate between the advocates of collegiate and industrial education, Miller maintained that the whole matter was one of “ratio and proportion” not “fundamental controversy.” Recognized as one of the most influential black educators in the nation because of his extensive writing and his leadership at Howard, Miller was sought out by both camps in the controversy but was trusted by neither because of his refusal to dogmatically support either of the rival systems.
Miller’s reputation as a “philosopher of the race question” was based on his brilliant articles, published anonymously at first, on “radicals” and “conservatives” in the Boston Transcript (18, 19 Sept. 1903). With some alterations, these articles later became the lead essay in his book Race Adjustment (1908). Miller’s essays insisted on the right of black Americans to protest against the injustices that had multiplied with the rise of the white supremacy movement in the South, as the Du Bois “radicals” did, but he also advocated racial solidarity, thrift, and institution-building as emphasized by the followers of Washington. Characteristically, Miller had two reputations as a public policy analyst, first as a compromiser between black radicals and conservatives, and second as a race spokesman during the prolonged crisis of disfranchisement and the denial of civil rights by white supremacists and their elected representatives in Congress. The Disgrace of Democracy: An Open Letter to President Woodrow Wilson, a pamphlet published in August 1917, was Miller’s most popular effort. Responding to recent race riots in Memphisand East St. Louis, Miller argued that a “democracy of race or class is no democracy at all.” Writing to Woodrow Wilson, he said, “It is but hollow mockery of the Negro when he is beaten and bruised in all parts of the nation and flees to the national government for asylum, to be denied relief on the basis of doubtful jurisdiction. The black man asks for protection and is given a theory of government.” More than 250,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold, and the military authorities banned it on army posts.
Although Miller was best known as a controversialist, he also made important but frequently overlooked contributions to the discipline of sociology. His earliest contribution was his analysis of Frederick L. Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, published by the American Economic Association in 1896. Hoffman attempted to demonstrate that the social disorganization of black Americans (weak community institutions and family structure) was caused by an alleged genetic inferiority and that their correspondingly high mortality rate would result in their disappearance as an element of the American population. Miller’s refutation of Hoffman’s claims, A Review of Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, published by the American Negro Academy in 1897, was based on a technical analysis of census data.
Perhaps Miller’s most lasting contribution to scholarship was his pioneering advocacy of the systematic study of black people. In 1901 he proposed to the Howard board of trustees that the university financially support the publications of the American Negro Academy, whose goals were to promote literature, science, art, higher education, and scholarly works by blacks, and to defend them against “vicious assaults.” Although the board declined, it permitted the academy to meet on the campus. Convinced that Howard should use its prestige and location in Washington to become a national center for black studies, Miller planned a “Negro-Americana Museum and Library.” In 1914 he persuaded Jesse E. Moorland, a Howard alumnus and Young Men’s Christian Association official, to donate to Howard his large private library on blacks in Africa and in the United States as the foundation for the proposed center. This became the Moorland Foundation (reorganized in 1973 as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center), a research library, archives, and museum that has been vital to the emergence of sound scholarship in this field.
The years after World War I were difficult ones for Miller. J. Stanley Durkee, the last of Howard’s white presidents, was appointed in 1918 and set out to curtail the baronial power of the deans by building a new central administration. Miller, a conspicuously powerful dean, was demoted in 1919 to dean of a new junior college, which was later abolished in 1925. A leader in the movement to have a black president of Howard, Miller was a perennial favorite of the alumni but was never selected. Although his influence at Howard declined significantly by the late 1920s through his retirement in 1934, Miller’s stature as a commentator on race relations and politics remained high. He had become alarmed by the vast social changes stimulated by World War I and was seen as increasingly conservative. He opposed the widespread abandonment of farming by black Americans and warned that the mass migration to cities would be socially and culturally destructive.
At a time when many younger blacks regarded labor unions as progressive forces, Miller was skeptical of them, citing their history of persistent racial discrimination. He remained an old-fashioned American patriot despite the nation’s many disappointing failures to extend democracy to black Americans. As a weekly columnist in the black press, Miller’s views were published in more than one hundred newspapers. By 1923 it was estimated that his columns reached half a million readers. Miller died at his home on the campus of Howard University.