You are here

Clarence Francis Stephens

  • Ethnicity: African American
  • Gender: M
  • Year of Birth: 1917
  • Place of Birth: Gaffney, South Carolina


  • PhD Institution: University of Michigan, 1943
  • MS Institution: University of Michigan, 1939
  • BS Institution: Johnson C. Smith University, 1938


"More than fifty years ago I came to the conclusion that every college student who desired to learn mathematics could do so. I spent my entire professional life believing that this was the case." Clarence Stephens, June 20, 1997.

Clarence F. Stephens was the fifth of six children (3 girls and 3 boys) born to Sam Stephens (a chef and railroad worker) and Jeannette Morehead Stephens in Gaffney, South Carolina on July 24, 1917. Sadly, Mrs. Jeannette Stephens died during a flu epidemic when Clarence was only two years old, and Mr. Sam Stephens died when Clarence was eight. All six children went to live with their maternal grandmother who died two years after Clarence's father. The three youngest children (the boys) all went to Harbinger Institute, a boarding school in Irmo, South Carolina. They worked on the Harbinger Farm in the summer to pay for their winter schooling. In spite of the challenging beginnings, all six Stephens children went to college. Five earned baccalaureate degrees, and one sister finished a two-year college.

All three of the Stephens boys attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. All three majored in mathematics. One of Clarence's sister also attended JCSU. Clarence graduated from JCSU in 1938 and began graduate study in mathematics that fall at the University of Michigan. Unknown to Stephens, Joseph Pierce earned in Ph.D. in Statistics from UM in Spring 1938, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in the Mathematical Sciences from UM. The two never met. Clarence Stephens received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics from UM in 1939 and 1943 respectively.

After a tour as a Teaching Specialist in the US Navy (1942-1946), he returned to the faculty of Prairie View A&M University as a professor of mathematics. In 1947, one year later, the President of Morgan State University sent Dr. Stephens an invitation to join MSU as a professor of mathematics. Dr. Stephens' focus was on being a research mathematician, so he accepted the position in part because he would be near a research library at Johns Hopkins University. While at MSU, Dr. Stephens became appalled at what a poor job was being done in general to teach and inspire students to learn mathematics. He then completely changed his focus from being a researcher to achieving excellence, with desirable results, in teaching mathematics. He remained at Morgan State until 1962.

In 1962 Professor Stephens accepted an appointment as professor of Mathematics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo. In 1969 he left Geneseo to join the mathematics faculty at SUNY at Potsdam. He served as chairman of the mathematics department at Potsdam from 1969 until his retirement in 1987. During his tenure the department became nationally known as a model of teaching excellence in mathematics. For several of these years the program was among the top producers of mathematics majors in the country. The teaching techniques that Professor Stephens introduced at Potsdam, and earlier at Morgan State, have been adopted by many mathematics departments across the country. They have been described in publications by the MAA, and recently in a book, Math Education At Its Best: The Potsdam Model, by Datta (Center for Teaching/Learning of Mathematics, 1993).

Professor Stephens discovered at a very early age that he could learn mathematics with very little help from his teachers. This ability to read mathematics with understanding, and to enjoy it for its intrinsic beauty, accounts for much of his success in becoming a mathematician. His teaching technique consists mainly of developing these abilities in students. He realized that a student who can study independently and find joy in learning and discovering new ideas, already has much of what is required for success in mathematics.

Professor Stephens has received numerous honors and awards. In 1942 he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (UM). In 1953-4, he received a Ford Fellowship for study as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. In 1962, he was honored by Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland, and in 1987 by Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, both citing distinguished service to Education. While at Potsdam, he received the 1976-77 SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Moreover he is a recipient of three honorary doctorates: from JCSU (1954), from Chicago State University (1990), and from SUNY (1996). Since retirement in 1987 he has given invited lectures and seminars on mathematics Education at colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S.

Professor Stephens lives with his wife, Harriete, on a farm in Conesus, New York. The two met in the summer of 1942 at UM where Mrs. Stephens was beginning her studies for the Master's degree in mathematics. She is currently Professor Emerita of Mathematics of SUNY College of Technology, Canton. The couple's daughter, H. Jeannette Stephens, has a Ph.D. in Mathematics Education from the Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City. Their son, Clarence F. Stephens, Jr., has a Master's degree in Mathematics from the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison. NAM extends to Professor Stephens belated best wishes on his eightieth birthday celebration, and congratulations on an illustrious career.

[Johnny L. Houston, Executive Secretary of NAM]

This biography first appeared in the NAM Newsletter, Fall Issue, 1997, p. 14. It is reprinted with the permission of NAM.