Black Mathematician Comes Full Circle at the University of Mississippi

Donald R. Cole was admitted as a freshman student at the University of Mississippi in 1968. This was just six years after James Meredith had first racially integrated the university. At the time of Cole’s enrollment, many whites on campus were still openly hostile to black students on campus. White students muttered racial slurs under their breath when Cole passed them on campus. White girls waved tiny Confederate flags as they passed him.

But the most severe insult came when it became time for Cole to select a major. He went to the office of the chair of the mathematics department to declare his major. The department chair refused to meet with Cole as he was a black student. Cole was only able to communicate with the department chair by way of the chair’s secretary acting as an intermediary. The secretary went back and forth between the reception area and the chair’s inner office to relay verbal messages between the black student and the white faculty member. At the end of this bizarre encounter, Cole was told simply he would not be permitted to major in mathematics.

Cole protested this decision and was asked to leave the university. He went on to graduate from Tougaloo College, a historically black educational institution in Mississippi. He subsequently earned two master’s degrees, one from the State University of New York and the other from the University of Michigan.

As time passed, the University of Mississippi became more accepting to black students. Cole returned to the university to pursue his doctorate in mathematics. He is now an associate professor in the mathematics department that refused to accept him as a student. He also serves as assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs.