America’s first Black geology Ph.D., geologist and geographer Marguerite Thomas Williams was born on December 24, 1895 in Washington D.C. Her pursuit of higher education was uncommon enough among women of her time, but as a woman of color born in the Reconstruction-era South, her academic achievements are especially remarkable.
While she worked toward her Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, she was employed as an elementary school teacher, a position which marked the beginning of her life-long work as an educator. After finishing her degree in 1923, she began teaching as an assistant professor at Miner Teacher’s College, now part of the University of the District of Columbia. For a decade, she served as the Chair of the College’s Division of Geography, though she took a leave of absence to continue her research at Columbia University in New York, where she earned her M.A. in 1930. Over the course of her education, she was mentored by Dr. Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941), himself a prominent, trailblazing Black scholar and an early developmental biologist.
When she ultimately received her Ph.D. in geology from the Catholic University of America in 1942, she was the first African American to ever earn that degree in the United States. Her dissertation was entitled A history of erosion in the Anacostia drainage basin, referring to the nearby basin of the Anacostia River, which runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Upon completion of her degree, she was promoted to full professor at Miner. She concurrently taught night classes at Howard University as well.
Because she focused her career on teaching rather than research, her legacy is less prominent than that of many scholars. However, she stood at the university lectern in a time in which it was rare for either a woman or a person of color to even be in the classroom. As the first Black person, male or female, to earn a Ph.D. in geology in America, she opened the doors of that discipline of black scholars and continued to serve them as an educator until her retirement in the 1950s.
Guest post by @NadiaDreamsBig
Some of the details of Professor Williams life are still lost to time — we would love to hear more, particularly about her students and her lifetime of teaching. So, as always, if you have more to add to the TrowelBlazing story, let us know!
Edited by Brenna
Byrnes, W. Malcolm and William R. Eckberg (2006) “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)—An early ecological developmental biologist.” Developmental Biology 296:1.
Ogilvie, Marilyn and Joy Harvey. (2003) The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. Routledge.
Warren, Wini. (1999) “Marguerite Thomas Williams: Geologist,” in Black Women Scientists in the United States. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, IN.
Williams, Marguerite T. (1942) A history of erosion in the Anacostia drainage basin. The Catholic University of America Press: Washington D.C.