Blackwell grew up in Centralia, Ill. His father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and his mother stayed at home to take care of him and his three siblings. At school, he was intrigued by geometry and calculus, especially theorems and methods for solving equations. His high school math club advisor would challenge members with problems from School Science and Mathematics journal and submit their solutions. Blackwell was identified three times in the magazine as having solved problems and one of his solutions was published.
At 16, Blackwell enrolled at the University of Illinois and majored in mathematics. He supported himself in college by washing dishes, waiting tables and cleaning equipment in the entomology lab. After three years, he graduated and continued at the university to obtain his master’s and doctorate degrees.
Blackwell was given a one-year appointment as a Rosenwald Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1941. It was common for Institute members to be made visiting fellows of Princeton. This caused quite a stir because there were no black students enrolled at the university during that time. Princeton’s president wrote a letter to the Institute protesting Blackwell’s admission, but the Institute upheld the appointment.
When his tenure at the Institute was drawing to a close, Blackwell applied for teaching positions at 105 black colleges. He didn’t apply to white institutions because he assumed they would not accept him because of his race. His first teaching job was at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. The following school year, Blackwell accepted a position at Clark...