Attending segregated schools in a small Georgia community, Shirley M. McBay was a prodigy who stood on a chair as a fourth-grader to write on a chalkboard while competing with high school students in solving math problems.
She also saw violent racism close-up. As a 5-year-old, she once watched between the legs of onlookers as a Black man was dragged behind a car to his death after he was falsely accused of a crime.
In the 1980s, as the first Black dean for student affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she directed the preparation of groundbreaking efforts that helped improve the future for students of color: “The Racial Climate on the MIT Campus” and the “Quality of Education for Minorities” project.
Dr. McBay — who also was the founder and president of the Quality Education for Minorities Network, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that evolved from her work at MIT — died in her Los Angeles home on Nov. 27 of diabetes and normal pressure hydrocephalus, a form of dementia. She was 86.
When she led the preparation of the “Racial Climate” report, “there was no other such study done at any other university in this country,” said Kenneth R. Manning, the Thomas Meloy professor of rhetoric and of the history of science at MIT. “It was the first that I know of.”
He added that “you could say it went viral in some sense at that time and caused a lot of introspection on the part of the institute.”
Dr. McBay “was a force of nature,” said Daniel Hastings, associate dean of engineering for diversity, equity, and inclusion at MIT.
“She was very dedicated to ensuring that as more women and minorities came to MIT, they did well — that they could thrive,” said Hastings, an aeronautics and astronautics professor who leads MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “She, in that sense, had a national impact.”
Part of her impact came from leading by example. She graduated from high school at 15 and finished a bachelor’s degree at 19.
Dr. McBay had already received master’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics when, at 21, she became the first Black student to graduate with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Georgia, and the first woman to receive one in that discipline from the school.
“She was unique,” Manning said. “Whoever made that design threw the pattern away.”
Born in Bainbridge, Ga., on May 4, 1935, Shirley Ann Mathis was the daughter of Annie Bell Washington Mathis, who was a cook and sold Avon products. Dr. McBay’s father, James Mathis, spent little time in her life.
“My mother was my role model in terms of making it clear that hard work was always what brought rewards, Dr. McBay said in an interview for “Technology and the Dream,” a book of oral histories conducted with Black students, faculty, and staff at MIT.
“There was never a question in my mind, growing up, about what was necessary to be successful,” Dr. McBay told interviewer Clarence G. Williams in 1996. “Although my mother had a very limited education herself, she used what she had to be successful.”
In that era, Black children weren’t allowed in Bainbridge’s community swimming pool and instead had to go to a nearby river, where one of her cousins drowned while trying to learn to swim.
Two other cousins had to flee in the night to Florida after they were briefly jailed when one of them slapped a white boy who had spit on her. The family was worried they would be lynched.
With the support of encouraging teachers, Dr. McBay skipped a couple of grades and headed off early to college and graduate school.
In 1954, she received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Paine College in Augusta, Ga., focusing on that field because there were too few math majors to justify upper-level courses.
She graduated in 1957 and ‘58 with master’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics from Atlanta University, and received a doctorate from the University of Georgia in 1966.
While doing graduate work at Atlanta University, she took some math courses at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where she met Henry McBay, a well-known chemistry professor and researcher. They married in 1954 and had two sons.
Dr. Henry McBay, who in 1991 became the first Martin Luther King Jr. visiting scholar at MIT, died in 1995.
While Shirley was pursuing graduate degrees, she began teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta. Except for a break of a couple of years when her husband was at the University of Chicago, she remained until 1975 at Spelman, where she chaired the mathematics department.
“When I first started teaching at Spelman, the students in my classes were older than I was,” she said in the oral history interview with Williams, an MIT professor emeritus who founded the MIT Black History project. “I was chaperoning students who were older than I was. They didn’t know that, but they were.”
For five years in the late 1970s, before joining MIT’s administration in 1980, she worked for the National Science Foundation, where part of her focus was improving education for students of color.
“The thing I learned from her is the capacity for unconditional love,” said her son Michael of Los Angeles. “She demonstrated that same love for her students and her work.”
He added that “without overtly mentioning spirituality and God, she was a force for good in the academic setting.”
A service in Boston will be announced for Dr. McBay, who in addition to Michael, leaves her other son, Ronald of Atlanta.
At MIT, while leading the preparation of reports that focused on recruitment, admissions, advisers, and financial aid for students of color, Dr. McBay advocated for the institution doing more immediately, particularly to address numerical disparities.
“What any minority needs is a critical mass for them to feel some sense of belonging,” she told the Globe in 1986. “I don’t think the critical mass is here. There aren’t enough Black students in particular. There are only 250; that’s 6 percent of 4,500.”
The following year, she spoke before a congressional panel focusing on education for underrepresented groups and communities.
“In the search for knowledge in science and engineering, the worst intellectual crime one can commit is to prejudice one’s results, to prejudge how something will turn out,” she said. “However, this is precisely what we are doing when we fail — from elementary school to graduate school — to encourage women and minorities to enter the fields of science and engineering.”
Doing so, she added, ultimately limits the nation’s progress.
“We must realize the talent we are missing when, as in 1985, women received only 6 percent of the US doctorates in engineering, or when, that same year, only seven Blacks in this entire nation received a doctorate in mathematics,” Dr. McBay told the panel.
She stayed at MIT from 1980 until 1990, when she left to lead the Quality Education for Minorities Network, which works to improve education for underrepresented students nationwide.
A longtime educator herself, she emphasized the importance of mentors.
“There were just people at every point I can tell you, who made a difference in terms of what happened to me,” she said in the oral history. “Teachers really made a difference.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.