LifestyleBlack History Month


Milwaukee mathematician Dr. Gloria F. Gilmer used creativity, culture to help students succeed

Posted at 6:25 AM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 17:32:59-05

MILWAUKEE -- Math and culture are two topics not often considered together. But Dr. Gloria F. Gilmer saw the benefit of blending the two.

She is a local math pioneer who used a unique approach to mathematics to help children and break down racial barriers.

"What my mom discovered was that African American students do better in math when they see how it relates to their life when they see how it becomes relevant," said Jill Gilmer.

Her mom Gloria, now 92, doesn't speak much anymore. But Jill is more than happy to talk about her mom's work and accomplishments.

"Math is so intimidating to a lot of people. But when you can actually excel in math, it gives you confidence that you can excel in other parts of your life as well," Jill explained.

Gloria moved to Wisconsin in the 1950s. Her career in Milwaukee featured a long list of firsts.

She was the first African American to teach high school math in Milwaukee Public Schools, the first African American on the mathematics faculty at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the first African American lecturer in the math department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"She never felt limited at all by her gender, or her race. She was always a go-getter," said Jill.

In the 1970s, Gloria went back to school at Marquette University and became the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from Marquette's School of Education.

Much of Gloria's work focused on helping minority students succeed in math. One way she did this was through a not-so-well-known focus called ethnomathematics. Gloria explained ethnomathematics as the math of the people.

In the late 1990s, Stephanie Desgrottes was a high school freshman. She had the opportunity to help Gloria with an ethnomathematics research project.

"For me, this was a new way to look at math," said Stephanie.

Their study revolved around math in African American hairstyles. They explored the mathematics of tessellations, geometry, and parting used in hair braiding.

"She really wanted people to understand that math is something that we do every day just innately," said Stephanie.

Gloria’s work continues to inspire female mathematicians to this day. Brittany Rhodes founded Black Girl MATHgic, a subscription box designed to increase math confidence in young girls. Each month has a theme and features a different female mathematician. When Brittany came across Gloria's work, she was amazed.

"There is a black woman mathematician who studied the math of hair braiding, wow, this is so exciting! Hair braiding of course is a very, very cultural piece in the black community," Brittany explained.

Brittany’s mission falls in line with what Gloria did for so many years, instilling confidence in kids around math. She is proud to carry on the mission of the women she features each month.

"They all paved the way for me to do the work that I'm doing today," Brittany said.

Gloria never let anything stand in her way.

Stephanie described Gloria as a trailblazer, a pioneer, someone who pushed the envelope and understood the power of youth. Brittany used the words, pioneering, creative, fearless, and groundbreaking.

Jill shared one of the most powerful lessons she learned from her mom.

"As you're achieving, as you're pursuing your career goals, it's important to look back at the next generation and try to help them along. That we must lift as we climb."

Dr. Gloria Gilmer's impact lives on today through the lives she touched, those she taught, and the people she continues to inspire.

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