Mathematician Joins the Faculty at Rice University, Where in 1964 He Broke the Racial Barrier for Students

Growing up in Alice, Texas, Raymond L. Johnson had to walk from his home six blocks past a new elementary school to a two-room schoolhouse for blacks. He earned a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Texas. But there, he was obliged to live in a racially segregated dormitory. At that time there were professors on campus who refused to admit black students to their classes. There were places on campus where black students were not permitted to go. But Johnson found a mentor at the University of Texas, a mathematician who was an alumnus of Rice University in Houston. However, at that time Rice University was closed to black graduate and undergraduate students.

In the late nineteenth century, William Marsh Rice, an oil, cotton, and real estate tycoon, was said to be the wealthiest man in Texas. He left the bulk of his estate to a trust that was to establish the Rice Institute for Literature, Science, and the Arts. Rice’s will specified that only white students would be permitted to attend.

In 1963 the university trustees sensibly announced that it would relieve itself from the whites-only clause of William Marsh Rice’s will. Johnson then applied and was accepted to the graduate program in mathematics. After extensive oppositional legal maneuvers by alumni who wanted to keep Rice University a whites-only institution, the courts finally permitted the university to integrate. Johnson began classes in 1964 and was awarded his doctorate in 1969. He was the first African American to earn a degree from Rice University.

After winning his Ph.D., Johnson joined the mathematics faculty at the University of Maryland. There, he was the first African-American faculty member. He remained on the University of Maryland faculty for 40 years. Now Dr. Johnson has returned to Rice for a three-year term as W.L. Moody Jr. Visiting Professor of Mathematics. He is teaching a course this fall on differential equations. “I’m not ready to stop working,” the 66-year-old Johnson stated. “I still have a lot of energy.”