William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor


Born: 4 January 1908 in Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Died: 14 July 1967 in Washington, D.C., USA


Schieffelin Claytor's parents were William Oat Claytor (1880-1956) and Simsie Thorne. William Oat Claytor was the fourth child of thirteen children of William Armstead Claytor and Judith Ann Reynolds. Most the thirteen children went on to become farmers, teachers or medical doctors. William Oat Claytor married Simsie E Thorne of Washington, D.C. She had attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, at Hampton, Virginia, graduating around 1900. When Schieffelin Claytor, the subject of this biography, was born his father was a vocational arts teacher at the Southern Norfolk Colored Graded School. The unusual name Schieffelin may have been chosen because of William Jay Schieffelin (1866-1955) who was a Republican of the school of Lincoln and strongly advocated the rights and advancement of African-American citizens. William Oat Claytor was awarded a D.D.S. in dentistry from Howard University in 1916. The family lived at 1350 U Street, Washington, D.C. while he studied at Howard University, a street which became famed as the heart of black culture in America. After graduating William Oat Claytor worked for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing but, by 1920, was working from his home at 1419 Q Street, Northwest in Washington, D.C. In 1928 the family moved to 1710 P Street, Northwest.

The family lived in Washington, D.C. throughout the early years of Schieffelin Claytor upbringing, and naturally he attended schools near his home. Later he studied at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Virginia, where his mother had studied. He entered Howard University in September 1925 and graduated with a B.S. in mathematics in 1929. There he was taught by Dudley Weldon Woodard (1881-1965) who had been awarded a Master's degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago and then taught at College level for over ten years before being appointed to Howard University in 1920. Woodard took the year 1927-28 away from Howard during which time he studied at the University of Pennsylvania for a Ph.D. advised by John Robert Kline (1891-1955). Woodard, the second African-American to be awarded a doctorate in mathematics, returned to Howard University and set up a graduate programme in mathematics. Claytor joined that programme in 1929, the first year it ran, and took the courses offered on group theory, topology, number theory, real analysis and complex analysis. While taking this graduate course, advised by Woodard, he published the solution to a problem on limits in The American Mathematical Monthly in December of 1929. The problem had been posed in the previous year by James Singer, a student of James Waddell Alexander, of the Graduate College at Princeton. Claytor graduated from Howard University with an M.S. in 1930.

Woodard had studied for his doctorate under John Robert Kline, who had been a student of Robert L Moore, at the University of Pennsylvania. He advised Claytor to follow the same route and he wrote to the University of Pennsylvania with a strong recommendation that they accept Claytor onto their graduate programme. He was accepted and, in 1930, began to study for his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania advised by John Robert Kline. Advised to read the latest topology papers, Claytor wrote to Raymond Wilder in April 1931 (see for example [9]):-

May I kindly ask for those of your papers of which you still have reprints. Some of your publications will aid me considerably in my thesis work here at Pennsylvania.
Claytor's work progressed well and he was awarded a Harrison Scholarship which he held during his second year as a graduate student and he also won a Harrison Fellowship holding these for his final two years of graduate study. Claytor was awarded a Ph.D. on Wednesday, 21 June 1933 for his thesis Topological Immersion of Peanian Continua in a Spherical Surface. It was published in the Annals of Mathematics. With this Claytor became the third African-American to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics and the first to have a research paper published. Kline wrote to Robert L Moore in October 1933 and praised Claytor's thesis highly (see for example [9]):-
Claytor wrote a very fine thesis. In many ways I think that it is perhaps the best that I have ever had done under my direction.
This quality of Claytor's thesis has been fully attested by the number of papers which have continued to reference it and the resulting papers. For example in 2011 Bruce Richter, Brendan Rooney and Carsten Thomassen proved a generalisation of Claytor's results in their paper On planarity of compact, locally connected, metric spaces.

One would have expected that someone with such an outstanding thesis would be able to find a university post where his talents could be fully realised. The best he could achieve was a position in West Virginia State College where he taught a bright student Katherine Coleman (better known today by her married name Katherine Johnson). She wrote [3]:-

Many professors tell you that you'd be good at this or that, but they don't always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician. ... Claytor was a young professor himself, and he would walk into the room, put his hand in his pocket, and take some chalk out, and continue yesterday's lesson. But sometimes I could see that others in the class did not understand what he was teaching. So I would ask questions to help them. He'd tell me that I should know the answer, and I finally had to tell him that I did know the answer, but the other students did not. I could tell.
But Claytor did far more that simply encourage Katherine, he made sure she took all the right courses and when he realised that she would need a background in analytic geometry that the College did not offer, he simply put on a course just for Katherine. However, a heavy teaching load and taking on extra work to help his students meant he had no time for research. He wrote in 1936 (see for example [9]):-
... in West Virginia my duties, together with the unfortunate local environment, have made it virtually impossible for me to do any effective mathematical work; so much so even, that I have not succeeded in completing a single problem since doing my thesis.
Many mathematicians were aware of his predicament and, a year before he wrote the above, Claytor had applied for a National Research Council fellowship to enable him to work with Oswald Veblen at the Institute for Advanced Study and with other topologists such as Solomon Lefschetz at Princeton University. Others working at Princeton in this area were James Alexander, Deane Montgomery, and Leo Zippin so it would have been an excellent place where Claytor would have flourished. However, Princeton University would not accept a "coloured person", the University administration claiming that the students would object. Leo Zippin, who was at Princeton, wrote to Raymond Wilder at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor trying to have Claytor accepted there:-
I had a letter from Kline asking me to write for Claytor ... which I did with great willingness ... and I spoke to Lefschetz and then to Veblen ... . Veblen ... seemed well impressed with Claytor ... He's heard about him for a full year or two. ... Princeton being out ... Claytor will find other places. I don't know of any better one he could find than Michigan ...
Claytor did not get a National Research Council fellowship, Gilbert Bliss having voted against an award being made to him. However, he felt he had to leave West Virginia State College and he wrote himself to Wilder seeking a position at the University of Michigan. After due discussions, Michigan decided to offer Claytor a position for a year but without a stipend. They would not charge him lecture or library fees - a small concession. Having some savings, Claytor thought he could survive, with difficulty, for a year without a stipend so accepted Michigan's offer and arranged to have 1936-37 as leave of absence from West Virginia State College.

The difficulties for African-Americans at this time is illustrated by discussions which went on about holding a topology conference in 1936-37 at North Carolina. Wilder, when asked by Whyburn about the organisation of this conference, replied:-

There are at least two "offcolor" topologists in existence (Woodard and Claytor) who would undoubtedly like to attend, and I wonder if they would feel very comfortable about attending a meeting in North Carolina. I know that not very long ago there was considerable discomfort caused some negro scholars who attended a meeting of some one of the learned societies in the south. I would probably never think of this objection if it hadn't been for the incident just mentioned, and for the fact that Claytor is apparently going to be here next year [1936-1937] to do some post-doctoral work.
Kline, when asked his opinion, wrote to Whyburn:-
I do not believe either of these men (Woodard and Claytor) will by any means think of going to Durham. ... I think they will not under the circumstances wish to run the risk of any unpleasant feeling by appearing at a meeting in the south.
It is unclear whether Claytor did attend this topology meeting (no list of participants exists) but he did attend the American Mathematical Society meeting in December 1936 in Durham and Chapel Hill immediately afterwards. He was not allowed to say in the conference accommodation and he was given a room in a private hotel. He did present a paper Peanian continua not imbeddable in a spherical surface to the American Mathematical Society meeting which contained new results he had obtained during the summer of 1936 and completed while at the University of Michigan. He published this paper in the Annals of Mathematics, appearing in 1937.

Claytor was successful in an application to the Rosenwald Fund and he was informed in April 1937 that he would receive a fellowship of $1500. One of the conditions was that the fellowship could not be taken abroad and he was advised to take it at the Institute for Advanced Study. However, again Princeton University stated that they would not permit any coloured person to go to the Institute for Advanced Study. Claytor decided to remain at the University of Michigan and, another application to the Rosenwald Fund provided a fellowship for a further year so he was able to remain at Ann Arbor until the end of the 1938-39 academic year. Sadly, worries about his uncertain future meant that Claytor found it difficult to concentrate on his research. Raymond Wilder and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, realising the stress that Caytor was under, tried to get him a permanent position there but the university authorities refused. Wilder did manage to get a non-academic position for Claytor at Michigan which enabled him to remain there until 1941, but he was not able to attend research seminars. When the Institute for Advanced Study opened its own building in 1939 they were able to make their own decisions independently of Princeton University and Veblen offered to accept Claytor at the Institute. However, Claytor turned down the offer saying that he did not want to be a guinea pig.

Although in April 1941 the United States was not yet involved in World War I, nevertheless Claytor enlisted in the US Army. He spent the war years teaching in Anti-Aircraft Artillery Schools in Virginia and Georgia. After the war ended, he spent the year 1945-46 at the Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the following year at the Hampton Institute. In 1947 he accepted a position at Howard University and, in the following year married Mae Belle Pullins; they had one daughter Melody Rachel Claytor. In the year they married, Mae was awarded a doctorate in psychology from the School of Education at New York University. Claytor continued teaching at Howard University where he regularly taught around 20 hours a week leaving him no time for research. He was only 59 years old and still in post at Howard University when he died in 1967.

The National Association of Mathematicians was founded in 1969 with the aim of:-

... the promotion of excellence in the mathematical sciences and the promotion and mathematical development of under-represented minority mathematicians and mathematics students.
In 1980 the Association instituted the Claytor Lecture in honour of William Schieffelin Claytor.

Let us end this biography by quoting a letter written by Mae Claytor after Claytor's death (see [2]):-

I am sorry about being late with this but it is just difficult for me to write about Bill. I am still at the point where I do not like to go back and think. In order to get much of this material, I had to go to what I call our memory books and looking at pictures and sort of reliving Bill; it just hurts a bit too much. I hope this is O.K. There is so much I just cannot put on paper. Even writing about Bill and his presentation at the Math Society, I thought about the days Bill used to tell me how owing to the Black-White mess, he had to stay at a private home when the others were at the hotel where the Association met. Over the years when the colour-line became less, he never would attend any more meetings. J R Kline used to come to see us periodically and try to get Bill to go with him but I guess the hurt went too deeply with him. After he left, I found old papers and letters he had when Kline was trying to get him in Princeton as a Fellow and whew, again it was the colour mess. At Princeton, the administration said the students might object to a "culud" person which was a laugh, they would never have known it. I do hope what I have written is O.K.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

October 2016
MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Claytor.html]