Late last month the mathematical community lost a man who has been described as the community’s conscience. Lee Lorch—desegregation activist, mentor to African American mathematicians, early supporter of the Association for Women in Mathematics—died in a Toronto hospital on February 28. He was 98.
While his obituary in the New York Times focuses on the work Lorch did on behalf of African Americans denied access to housing in New York City, more mathematical examples of Lorch’s efforts to advance equity exist. The MAA awarded Lorch the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics in 2007, and the citation recounts what happened at a 1951 meeting in Nashville:
Lee Lorch, the chair of the mathematics department at Fisk University, and three black colleagues, Evelyn Boyd (now Granville), Walter Brown, and H. M. Holloway, came to the meeting and were able to attend the scientific sessions. However, the organizer for the closing banquet refused to honor the reservations of these four mathematicians. (Letters in Science, August 10, 1951, pp. 161–162, spell out the details). Lorch and his colleagues wrote to the governing bodies of the AMS and MAA seeking bylaws against discrimination. Bylaws were not changed, but non-discriminatory policies were established and have been strictly observed since then.
When Lorch accepted the 2007 Gung and Hu, which honored him for “his continued dedication to inclusiveness, equity, and human rights for mathematicians, and especially his profound influence on the lives of minority and women mathematicians who have benefited from his efforts,” he noted that “the struggle continues.” Keeping up the fight may be the best way to honor Lorch’s memory.
Read “Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award to Lee Lorch for Distinguished Service to Mathematics” (American Mathematical Monthly, March 2007).