She’s left an indelible mark!
Gloria Ford Gilmer was a Milwaukee math teacher and international researcher whose work was critical in advancing the field of ethnomathematics, Good Morning America (GMA) reports. She first discovered her love for math while working at her father’s grocery store as a child. That passion grew as she got older, Gilmer making history as the first Black math teacher for the Milwaukee Public Schools system. She went on to become 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. A litany of firsts!
Intent on sharing her love of math with the world, Gilmer found culturally inclusive ways to teach math to others, advancing the field of ethnomathematics, which she referred to as “the math of the people.”
“It’s just a way of looking at the practical applications of math within your own culture,” her daughter Jill Gilmer explained. “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. There’s math as you’re tracking your route from school to your house. There’s math in almost every aspect of life,” she added.
Gilmer passed away in 2021 at the age of 93 but her family has preserved much of her research. Last year, Josh Levy, a historian of science and technology at the Library of Congress contacted the Gilmer family to acquire the matriarch’s research and add it to the Library’s Manuscript Division which already holds 12,000 collections.
“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…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,” Levy told reporters.
The pioneering researcher is also the first Black woman mathematician to have her work displayed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Her daughter said she was shocked when she received the call from Levy.
“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…I never thought that someone in our family would be in the Library of Congress. And it’s just very exciting and I’m very grateful,” said Jill Gilmer.
Gilmer’s research afforded her the opportunity to travel around the globe learning about math, authoring several textbooks on the subject for students as young as elementary aged and bringing her numerous accolades and awards throughout the year. Despite her accomplishments, her daughter said Gilmer focused not on fame but on giving back, taking all that she learned and passing it on to the next generations. This posthumous honor is prestigious and Gilmer’s legacy continues to light the path for the next generation, Black Girl MATHgic founder Brittany Rhodes saying she is just one of the many who have benefitted from Gilmer’s work.
“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,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes has used that work to further her mission of getting young girls interested in math and STEM fields, thankful that Gilmer was able to blaze a trail for others to follow.
“She’s the first of many. So now the door is officially open,” said Rhodes.
Cover photo: Gloria Gilmer makes history as the first Black woman mathematician to have work in the Library of Congress/Photo Courtesy of Jill Gilmer/Good Morning America