Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

A Pioneer Returns

When Raymond Johnson stepped to the front of a Rice University classroom for the first time this fall, few of his students realized the significance of the moment. In an extraordinary turn of events, the first black student to earn a degree at Rice had returned as a professor.

The mathematician, who earned his doctorate here in 1969, holds a unique place in Rice history as the first African-American to be admitted and earn a degree — breaking a whites-only barrier that had been part of the Rice Institute charter since the founding of the university.

Johnson, now Rice’s distinguished W.L. Moody Jr. Visiting Professor of Mathematics, spent a 40-year career at the University of Maryland, where he was the first black faculty member. He taught in, and for a while chaired, the mathematics department and pursued research in harmonic analysis.

With retirement beckoning, Johnson agreed to come to Houston two years ago for an event called "Our History, Our Present, Our Future" that honored the 40th anniversary of the first African-Americans to enter Rice as undergraduates and earn degrees. Johnson’s own history, present and future also came together that day.

Johnson and wife"It’s purely a Rice story," said Johnson, sitting in his office in Herman Brown Hall. "While I was here, I met my future wife, Ava Plummer, who’s also a Rice grad, Class of 1978. We started talking, then we started dating, and we got married last December."

Plummer, however, had no intention of leaving her position as a lawyer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to move to Maryland.

"I started looking for a position in Houston," Johnson said. "I knew I could retire from Maryland, and the backup plan was, in theory, to do that."

Not so fast, said Rice officials, who jumped at the chance to bring him aboard. "He was well-known to the department for his research, for the fact that he was our first African-American graduate and for his exceptional work mentoring doctoral students, which brought him national recognition," said Brendan Hassett, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics. At Maryland, Johnson mentored 23 students — 22 of them African-American and eight of them women — who went on to earn doctorates in mathematics, and his efforts earned him the 2006 Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rice President David Leebron recognized the value of what Johnson brings. "It’s especially poignant to have Raymond here to greet our largest and most diverse freshman class ever," he said. "His perspective of Rice then and experience with Rice now will help all of us better appreciate the progress that has been achieved through the work of so many. He is a pioneer who helped us get to where we are today."

Johnson modestly maintains he happened to be at the right place at the right time. "There were a couple of bumps, but it was very straightforward," he said of his education. "I hope one of the things I can teach is that black students can succeed here. If they’re qualified and they work hard, they’ll complete the degree."