Edgar Joseph Edmunds was born January 26, 1851, in New Orleans to Edgar and Rose Euphemie Foy Edmunds, free people of color. Edmunds graduated fifth among a class of over 200 students at the Polytechnic Scientific School in Paris. While in school, Edmunds gained a reputation for proficiency in mathematics and later earned a lieutenancy in the French artillery service. In 1872, Edmunds returned to New Orleans where he received an invitation to teach. Racial tensions were high upon Edmunds return to New Orleans. In 1874 the White League attacked the Metropolitan Police force in an attempt to instate a government based in white supremacy.
In 1875, Boy’s Central High School, an all-white school, announced Edmunds as the new Professor of Mathematics. According to the local newspaper, on Edmunds’ first day at the school, all 11 members of the senior class protested being taught by a “colored man” by walking out of the school. Later that afternoon, a young man approached Edmunds on the street shouting obscenities and racial slurs and a crowd soon formed. In order to defuse the situation, Edmunds stepped into a nearby office instead of engaging with the young man and the crowd soon dispersed. Other citizens of New Orleans also protested the Edmunds position within the school. An opinion article in the New Orleans Times objected Edmunds’ appointment, as it would “make a negro the master of a white boy.”
Others supported Edmunds’ appointment. P.B.S. Pinchback, former governor of Louisiana and the first black governor in the United States, fully supported the appointment of Edmunds, as did the Board of Directors for the Orleans Parish School Board. While there are very few quotes from Edmunds himself, in a newspaper article he challenged his critics to a battle of mathematical problems, and when asked about rumors of his resignation, Edmunds responded he will, “continue the fight to the bitter end, no matter what the result might be.” The following semester, Edmunds continued to hold his position at Central High School. It is not clear how long Edmunds worked at Central High School.
Edmunds continued to teach mathematics, publish in mathematical journals, and eventually secured a teaching position at Southern University. After several years of battling illness, Edmunds passed at the young age of 36, leaving behind his wife, three young children, and notable teaching career. In the racially violent Reconstruction-Era, Edmunds was able to defy the racist society he lived in and demonstrate that Black New Orleanians would not passively endure treatment as second class citizens. Through his professorship, Edmunds integrated a school 80 years before the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.