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  • Writer's pictureLivi Adu

Could Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams be the first Black Geologist?

It has been a near-impossible task to find the first Black Geologist. I have found no records or recognition of any historical Black Geologists in the United Kingdom but, in my hunt for these answers I came across a trailblazer from across the pond, Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams, who has inspired me to dive deeper into the archives to find the narratives of pioneers who have become lesser-known historical figures.

This blog post delves into the life and legacy of Dr. Williams, the original Rock Queen, highlighting her significant contributions to the field of geology and her impact as a role model for women of colour in STEM. Together, we celebrate her remarkable achievements for Women's History Month.

The image is a black and white photograph showing Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams from the shoulders up. She is a black woman with short curly black hair and is wearing a collared shirt or jacket with distinct patterns and textures. There’s text at the bottom of the image that credits the source of the photo to “University of the District of Columbia.”
Photograph of Marguerite Thomas Williams [Image credit: the University of District of Colombia]

Early Life and Education

Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams was born on Christmas Eve 1895. As the youngest of five siblings, she grew up in a bustling household in Washington D.C. From a young age, Marguerite showed a keen interest in the natural world around her. She would often spend hours exploring the outdoors, her curiosity piqued by the diverse landscapes and geological formations she encountered. This early fascination with nature would later become the cornerstone of her career as a scientist and educator.

Marguerite’s formal education began at the ‘Normal School for Colored Girls’, an institution dedicated to training African American women as teachers. This school is now known as the University of the District of Columbia. After graduating in 1916, Marguerite’s academic prowess earned her a scholarship to Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black universities. While pursuing her Bachelor’s degree at Howard, Marguerite balanced her studies with a job as an elementary school teacher. This experience not only provided her with a practical understanding of pedagogy but also reinforced her passion for education.

Despite her qualifications and dedication, Marguerite faced significant challenges due to the racial and gender biases of her time. One such instance was when she was overlooked for a position at Howard University despite being more qualified. Undeterred by these setbacks, Marguerite continued to forge her path in the academic world. In 1923, she achieved a significant milestone by completing her Bachelor’s degree. This was just the beginning of her journey in academia, a journey that would lead her to make history in the field of geology.

The image depicts a detailed, black and white land utilization map of the Anacostia River Basin. Different patterns and shading are used to represent various types of land use including swamp, wooded, grass, wooded-residential, cultivated land, and residential areas. The river is clearly marked and winds through the mapped area. There are annotations on the map that provide additional information about scale and contour intervals. It’s indicated that the map was taken from U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. This map could be used for studying the geographical features and land utilization of the Anacostia River Basin.
Dr. William's Land utilisation map for her PhD thesis (Williams, 1942)

Career and Achievements

Dr. M T Williams, like many women of colour in her time, faced significant challenges and prejudices in her career. As a Black woman in the field of geology, which was predominantly male and white, she had to overcome numerous barriers. Despite these obstacles, Dr. Williams persevered and continued her education at Columbia University, earning her master’s degree in 1930. In 1942, she completed her PhD at the Catholic University of America, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate in geology. Her dissertation, “The History of Erosion in the Anacostia Drainage Basin,” examined the impact of human activity on erosional processes. After earning her PhD, she served as the Chair of the Division of Geography and was promoted to assistant professor at Miner Teacher’s College. Her career focused on teaching rather than research. A number of factors could have influenced her decision to focus on teaching rather than research. She would have faced barriers to entering research due to the prejudices of the time. Additionally, teaching allowed her to have a direct impact on students and the next generation of scholars, which may have aligned more closely with her personal goals and values.

The image is a black and white photograph depicting a classroom in 1940s/50s setting with several black students. The students are seated in rows, holding papers or books, suggesting a learning or educational environment. There’s a Dr. Williams standing at the front of the room near a globe. Large windows are visible in the background, allowing natural light to illuminate the room.
Dr. Williams teaching a class at the University of District of Columbia. [Image Credit: University of District of Columbia]

Barriers and challenges to being the first Black Geologist

While it’s challenging to find specific instances of discrimination faced by Dr. M T Williams, due to the lack of detailed personal accounts, it is possible to assume from the societal context that she likely faced additional prejudices:

  • Racism and Misogynoir: As a Black woman in the early 20th century, Marguerite lived in a society where racial segregation and discrimination were legally enforced and widely accepted. Dr. Williams would have also faced stereotyping and microaggressions throughout her career. These subtle forms of discrimination can have a significant impact on a person’s career progression and sense of belonging in the field.

  • Educational Discrimination: As a student, Marguerite had to attend segregated schools, which were often under-resourced compared to schools for white students. The field of geology, like many other scientific fields at the time, was dominated by white men. As a result, Marguerite would have faced numerous challenges and prejudices throughout her academic and professional career.

  • Professional Discrimination: Despite being more qualified, Marguerite was overlooked for a position at Howard University. Marguerite’s career focused on teaching rather than research, while this might have been her choice, it’s also possible that she faced barriers to entering research due to racial and gender biases. Professional societies also play a crucial role in a scientist’s career, however, these societies were often exclusive to white men during Dr. Williams’ time. This likely limited her opportunities for networking, collaboration, and professional development.

  • Lack of Recognition: Despite her groundbreaking achievements, Dr. Williams’ work and contributions are not widely recognized in the field of geology. As a Black female scientist in the early 20th century, Dr. Williams would have faced biases and discrimination in academic publishing, a field dominated by white men. This lack of recognition can be seen as a form of Institutionalised discrimination.

Legacy of Dr Williams

Though I am not entirely sure if Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams is the first Black Geologist, she is undoubtedly the first Black person to get a PhD in geology. Born in the late 19th century, a time when opportunities for Black women were severely limited, In spite of the challenges Dr. Williams faced, she left a lasting legacy in the field of geology and continues to inspire many, especially women of colour in STEM fields. She dedicated her career to teaching geography and social sciences.

Though she focused on teaching rather than research, her legacy continues to inspire many, especially women of colour in the field of geology. She retired in 1955, and passed away in 1991. Her life and work serve as a testament to her resilience, determination, and passion for knowledge.

What are your thoughts on Dr, Williams’ contributions to geology? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The image depicts a cartoon of a black woman with short curly black hair, examining a detailed geological map. The person is dressed in formal attire including a white shirt and red bow tie, covered by a brown vest. They are holding a black magnifying glass close to the map to inspect it closely. The geological map is colorful with various layers indicating different types of terrains or rock formations. An open book with intricate designs on its pages rests on the wooden table in front of the individual. To the left of the book, there’s an old-fashioned camera with two lenses at the front. A holder containing multiple coloured pencils is also present on the table.
AI generated image of Dr. MT Williams making her geological map




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