Kelly Miller

Mathematician Kelly Miller advanced the intellectual life of African Americans, earning several advanced degrees. He was the first black man to attend Johns Hopkins University.


Kelly Miller was born on July 18, 1863, in Winnsboro, South Carolina. A minister noticed his aptitude for mathematics, so he was sent to the Fairfield Institute to study, earning a scholarship to Howard University. He attended Johns Hopkins University for post-graduate work, the first black man to do so. He spent his teaching career at Howard University, and eventually died at his home on the campus, in Washington, D.C., on December 29, 1939.

Early Life

Kelly Miller was born on July 18, 1863, in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He was the sixth of 10 children. His father, Kelly Miller Sr., was a Confederate soldier, and his mother, Elizabeth Roberts, was a former slave. As a youth, Miller attended a grammar school that had been established during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, but a local minister noticed his aptitude for math and arranged for Miller to attend the Fairfield Institute. His industry there eventually earned him a scholarship to Howard University, in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Howard in 1886, having excelled in Latin and Greek as well as math and sociology, Miller secured a position in the U.S. Pension Office, where he had clerked as an undergrad. In 1887, due in part to the recommendations of his professors and the institution's Quaker leanings, he became the first black man to be admitted to study at Johns Hopkins University, where he did post-graduate work in mathematics, physics and astronomy until 1889.

Teaching Career and Writing

When increased tuition fees compelled Miller to take a job teaching at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., he had to leave Johns Hopkins. However, he returned to Howard University the following year to take a teaching position. In 1895, Miller became the first person at the university to teach sociology.

Meanwhile, Miller continued his own education, pursuing a master's degree in mathematics, which he earned in 1901, and by attending the College of Law, from which he earned his degree in 1903. In 1907, he became dean of Howard's College of Arts and Sciences and initiated a modernization of the curriculum. During his tenure, Miller would make considerable efforts to recruit students for the school by touring the Southern states. His hard work would soon bear fruit, as undergraduate enrollment more than tripled during his first four years as dean.

While continuing to teach, Miller's frequently published as well. His work included a weekly column in which he was able to express his social and political views and his 1908 book, Race Adjustment. Although he also assisted W. E. B. Du Bois in editing the NAACP's official journal, he was aligned with neither liberal thinkers nor the conservatives of the Booker T. Washington faction. Instead, he stressed a middle ground that involved comprehensive education and self-sufficiency. His graduation address at Howard University in 1898 eloquently underscored his ideas.

Death and Legacy

In 1918, Howard University appointed a new president and Miller was demoted to dean of the junior college. However, he continued to teach sociology at the institution, and on December 29, 1939, Kelly Miller died at his home on the Howard University campus. Miller was survived by a wife, four of five children, and a legacy that showed higher education for African Americans was an attainable goal.

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