Raymond Johnson, Rice’s first black student, back as math professor

A pioneer returns
Raymond Johnson, Rice’s first black student, back as math professor

Rice News staff

When Raymond Johnson stepped to the front of a Rice University classroom for the first time this fall, few students realized the significance of the moment. In an extraordinary turn of events, the first black student to earn a degree at Rice had returned as a professor.

And it was love that brought him back to stay.


Johnson’s return has meaning that goes beyond heartwarming. The mathematician who earned his doctorate here holds a unique place in Rice history as the first African-American to be admitted — breaking a whites-only barrier that had been part of the Rice Institute charter since the founding — as well as the first to earn a degree.

Johnson, now Rice’s distinguished W.L. Moody Jr. Visiting Professor of Mathematics, spent a 40-year career at the University of Maryland, where he was the first black faculty member. He taught in, and for a while chaired, the Math Department and pursued research in harmonic analysis.

With retirement beckoning, Johnson agreed to come to Houston two years ago for an event called “Our History, Our Present, Our Future” that honored the 40th anniversary of the first African-Americans to enter Rice as undergraduates and earn degrees.

Johnson’s own history, present and future all came together that day.

Luck, be a lady at Rice

“It’s purely a Rice story,” said Johnson, 66, sitting in his new office atop the Herman Brown building. “I came in 2007 for the anniversary, which basically honored Linda Faye Williams (one of those first black undergraduates and for whom an annual Rice award is named).

“While I was here I met my future wife, Ava Plummer, who’s also a Rice grad, Class of 1978. We started talking, and we started dating, and we got married last December.”

So luck, in this case, is a lady — a lawyer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center who had no intention of moving to Maryland.

“When we knew we were going to get married, I started looking for a position in Houston. I knew I could retire from Maryland and the backup plan was, in theory, to do that,” he said.

Not so fast, said Rice officials who jumped at the chance to bring him aboard. “He was well-known to the department for his research, for the fact that he was our first African-American graduate and for his exceptional work mentoring doctoral students, which brought him national recognition,” said Brendan Hassett, professor and chair of the Mathematics Department, noting Johnson won the 2006 Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. At Maryland, Johnson mentored 23 students — 22 of them African-American and eight of those women — who have received doctorates in mathematics.

“He had a presence on campus before we had any idea he might be interested in coming to Houston on a longer-term basis,” said Hassett.

“It worked out that Rice offered me a position,” Johnson said. “I’m not ready to stop working. I still have a lot of energy.”

Rice President David Leebron recognized the value of what Johnson brings. ”It’s especially poignant to have Raymond here to greet our largest and most diverse freshman class ever,” he said. “His perspective of Rice then and experience with Rice now will help all of us better appreciate the progress that has been achieved through the work of so many. He is a pioneer who helped us get to where we are today.”

Times of transition

Johnson is clearly delighted to return to the campus he left in 1967. Having followed his adviser, Jim Douglas Jr., to the University of Chicago for his final year of study, Johnson defended his dissertation at Rice in the summer of ’68 and collected his doctorate in 1969. From there, he and his first wife, Claudette, who passed away in 2002, settled in College Park, Md.

Societal transitions have played critical roles in Johnson’s life, starting with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the ’50s. Suddenly, he said, “there was an effort to improve math and science training in the United States, and I benefited greatly from that.”

As a child in Alice, Texas, Johnson was barred from the new elementary school near his house and had to walk six blocks past it to a two-room schoolhouse for blacks. But the town’s high school integrated just before he entered ninth grade and offered a Sputnik-inspired math enrichment class. “I had to get up at 6:30 in the morning, but it was really an exciting time,” he said. ”I learned stuff I wasn’t learning in the classroom, and it helped prepare me for the University of Texas.”

UT, which Johnson attended on a National Merit Scholarship, was integrated — to a point. “Black students had gone there for about 10 years, but it was still not quite a desegregated university,” he said. “I lived in a segregated dorm, and there were places I couldn’t go, professors I couldn’t take classes from.”

But the University of Texas unlocked the door to Rice. His mentor, UT professor and Rice alumnus Howard Curtis ’58, led him to study applied mathematics and guided him toward Rice, which had just decided to break the charter provision banning nonwhites. Curtis himself planned to return to Rice for a sabbatical year.

“I can’t stress too much the role Dr. Curtis played,” Johnson said of his mentor. “He suggested Rice and introduced me to people who would take the same kind of care of me that he had taken at Texas. That gave me confidence.”

‘It was clear that he had a mission’

John Hempel, Rice’s Milton B. Porter Professor of Mathematics, recalled giving the young Johnson one of his qualifying exams. “In this case it was an oral exam and, if I remember correctly, I was the only examiner,” he said. “Even good students don’t always do well on oral exams — there’s a lot of nervousness and pressure. Even though examiners try to be nice, the examinee always fears the worst. But he was very polished, and it was probably one of the best examinations I can remember.

“He was just on top of everything I asked,” Hempel said. “It was clear that he had a mission.”

Sputnik continued to be Johnson’s lucky star, as the resultant space race helped Rice in its push to desegregate. Federal funds were tied to nondiscrimination in admissions — and NASA’s 1961 decision to build the Manned Space Center on Rice-donated land was about to bring a lot of research funding to the university.

Johnson applied and was admitted in 1963, but his academic career hit what he called “a bump” when two alumni sued the university to keep the charter intact. He came to Rice anyway as a research associate in the Math Department. “I had to ask myself, How could I be so sure, in 1963, that Rice was going to win this suit?” he said. ”Somehow, the civil rights era meant they had to … and it was part of a lot of the decisions I made.

“I felt like a normal graduate student, and the other graduate students made me feel like one. I thought, ‘I can handle this.'”

Scaling the barriers

Within a year, Rice had won, and Johnson became a student in 1964. “I had found a home in the applied math group at UT, and when I came to Rice I was able to do the same,” he recalled. “The Math Department was small, and we’d all hang out together — even though I couldn’t go certain places with them at that time.

“It was a twofold problem. One was, when I came in 1963, I was 20. I think the drinking age was 21, so I couldn’t have gone to the bars with them anyway. The other problem was that the bars weren’t desegregated. But my friends used to tell me what they did there, and I thought it was just as well I couldn’t go.”

Unlike the University of Texas, he said the Rice campus had no barriers. But things were different outside the hedges, and Johnson, who lived off-campus, took an active role in the fight for civil rights. “We were helping desegregate the restaurants,” he said, recalling protests organized by another Rice alum, Nancy Stooksberry Cole ’64, the now-retired president of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT.

“Though the Civil Rights Act had passed, we weren’t sure about some of the restaurants off-campus,” he said. “Basically, a mixed group would go to a restaurant to see if we would be served. There were still some places that wouldn’t even then.”

Rice began admitting African-Americans as undergraduates in 1965. Johnson recalls several living in the colleges at the time, and for years assumed one of them was the first black to have earned a Rice degree. He didn’t learn otherwise until the early ’90s, when the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that the first blacks received Rice degrees in 1970. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I graduated in 1969!”’ he said. ”I wrote them a letter.” The correction was made.

Closing the circle

Johnson, who has a three-year appointment at Rice, is teaching a course in differential equations and expects to mentor students this fall. “They’re easing me in, and I’m very happy about that,” he said, noting part of his job will be to recruit students to the graduate program.

Johnson anticipates helping Richard Tapia, University Professor and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor of Engineering, mentor minority students. “When Raymond contacted me and told me that he was coming to Houston, the possibility of having him at Rice again became a reality and was something that we had to move on,” said Tapia of Johnson’s return. “He understands Rice, its students, its faculty and its mission. This is an outstanding and much-needed hire.”

”Raymond Johnson’s story reminds us how much our nation has changed since 1950, and how important those changes have been,” said Rice Provost Eugene Levy. “The 1950s and especially the 1960s were witness to a seminal struggle for rights, equality and inclusion in American society.

“Although much still remains to realize completely the dreams that crystallized so brilliantly 40 and 50 years ago, the United States changed direction irrevocably for the better in those important years. Ray Johnson was a key participant in Rice’s equality drama. His subsequent mathematical work focused in the area of harmonic analysis, which has original roots in functions related to circles. It is especially gratifying that Ray’s own circle has brought him back to Rice, where he has much to teach us … and not only about mathematics.”

Johnson modestly maintains he “happened to be at the right place at the right time,” but let the record show that talent, hard work and persistence carried him through his years at Rice and to a long and distinguished career.

“There were a couple of bumps, but it was very straightforward,” he said of his education. “I hope one of the things I can teach is that black students can succeed here. If they’re qualified, they come in and they work hard, they’ll complete the degree.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.