Theses Doctoral

Edgar Joseph Edmunds (1851 – 1887), Mathematics Teacher at the Center of New Orleans’ Post-Civil War Fight Over School Integration

Zelbo, Sian

This dissertation is a historical study of a nineteenth-century teacher of mathematics of African descent, Edgar Joseph Edmunds (“E. J. Edmunds”). The study traces the life and career of Edmunds, which spanned a period of social upheaval in the South – from the pre-Civil War era, through Reconstruction, and into the Jim Crow era of segregation. Edmunds’ career as a teacher of mathematics was, in some sense, unremarkable. He did not produce original mathematics and never held a position in a prestigious college or university. Edmunds is significant, however, in two respects. Edmunds was among the few known nineteenth-century American mathematical personages of African descent who, in spite of the legal restrictions and social obstacles endured by people of color, managed to achieve the highest level of mathematical education available at the time. As such, Edmunds serves as a historical example of both the hardships and the fleeting opportunities in nineteenth-century African-American communities. Edmunds’ life is instructive also because it intersected with institutions and events that are significant to the history of mathematics education and to the history of education generally. Edmunds tested into and attended the École Polytechnique in Paris, the vanguard of mathematics education at the time and the subject of much research in the history of mathematics education. When Edmunds returned to New Orleans to teach, he became the central figure in the city’s fight over racial integration in schools. By examining Edmunds’ life as a thread that connects institutions, events, and communities, we see these subjects from a different perspective and gain new insight. This study collects and analyzes documents from various government and archival sources to understand the facts and circumstances of Edmunds’ unusual life, but also to view the mathematics education of various nineteenth-century communities (French and American, black and white) though the lens of a man whose educational and career path took him though all of them.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics Education
Thesis Advisors
Karp, Alexander P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 7, 2020