Wanted to invite everyone to check out our newest addition to the Brothers Forum official website. Black History All Day (B.H.A.D) (pronounced BAD). In addition to adding information daily, we will be adding one leader of our community a day during Black History Month!
Thank you for your time, and we hope you enjoy our new section!
Woodson's Early Life
Born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, Carter Godwin Woodson was the fourth of nine children born to parents who had been enslaved. As an African American boy growing up in central Virginia during the late 19th century in the Reconstruction era, Woodson had few educational or employment opportunities. In pursuit of a new life, he and his family moved to Huntington, West Virginia where he worked in the New River Gorge coalfields to help supplement the family’s income. Finally, at the age of 20, Woodson saved enough money from his days as a coal miner to begin his formal education at Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, one of the few black high schools at the time. He received his diploma in just two years, as he was already self-taught in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Woodson then earned his first collegiate degree from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky in 1903 and continued his education at the University of Chicago, obtaining another Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, both in 1908. In 1912, he earned his PhD in History from Harvard University, making him the second black American (only following W.E.B. Du Bois) to graduate with a PhD from Harvard; and the only person of enslaved parentage to earn a PhD in History from any institution in the United States.
Institutionalizing the Field of Black History
As Woodson immersed himself in the world of education, he noticed the prevailing ignorance and lack of information concerning black life and history. In an attempt to correct such an obvious oversight, Woodson, on September 9,1915, co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc., now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. (ASALH). The organization aimed to inform the American public about the contributions of black Americans in the formation of the country, its history, and culture. On July 18, 1922, Woodson purchased his home at 1538 Ninth Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C., and he located the association's headquarters on the first floor. He resided on the third floor of the home until his death on April 3, 1950.
While running the organization, Woodson also took on many other roles within the academic world. He taught at both the public school and collegiate levels, trained researchers and other staff at the organization, and wrote books and articles on the subject that was his life’s work. Woodson held the position of Dean at the School of Liberal Arts and Head of the Graduate Faculty at Howard University from 1919 to 1920. He also served as Dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now known as West Virginia State University. Although he was well-respected and sought after in the academic arena, Woodson retired from teaching in 1922 to devote his full attention to ASALH, research, writing, and grooming young scholars for the historical profession.
Woodson also started the academic publication The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and The Negro History Bulletin in 1937. In 1921, he founded the Associated Publishers, Inc., a publishing company that took on works that other companies would not, such as the writings of black scholars and women on African American and African Diaspora history.
A Champion of Women and a Mentor to Many
During Woodson's lifetime, the Association had five presidents. In 1936, Mary McLeod Bethune was elected president of the organization, filling the vacancy left open after the death of educator John Hope. Bethune not only was the first female president, she was also its longest serving, wearing the title until 1952. Woodson, unlike most male scholars during this time, welcomed African American women as equal co-workers and leaders in the ranks of his movement and also facilitated productive, cross-generational dialogues and relationships. He was a mentor to many up-and-coming historians and scholars such as Alrutheus A. Taylor, Charles H. Wesley, Luther Porter Jackson, Lorenzo Johnston Greene, Rayford W. Logan, Lawrence D. Reddick, and John Hope Franklin. The association's headquarters/Woodson's office-home served as a training center and these scholars in turn trained succeeding generations of African American historians that helped to legitimize black history. While Woodson developed young men and women, the association developed important relationships with black churches, colleges, universities, schools, and community centers all around the country.
Latimer's Early Life
Lewis Latimer (Sept. 4, 1848–Dec. 11, 1928) is considered one of the most important Black inventors for the number of inventions he produced and patents he secured, but also for the importance of his best-known discovery: a longer-lasting filament for the electric light. He also helped Alexander Graham Bell obtain the patent for the first telephone. Latimer was in great demand for his expertise later in his career as electric light spread across the country. Indeed, without Latimer's help and expertise, Thomas Edison may not have even received a patent for his light bulb. Yet, possibly due to the whitewashing of history, Latimer is not well remembered today for his many lasting accomplishments.
Lewis Latimer was born on Sept.4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of four children born to George Latimer, a paperhanger, and Rebecca Smith Latimer, who both escaped enslavement. His parents had fled from Virginia in 1842 by hiding beneath the deck of a northbound ship, but his father was recognized in Boston by a former employee of their enslaver.
George Latimer was arrested and brought to trial, where he was defended by noted 19th-century North American Black activist Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually, a group of activists paid $400 for his freedom.
George Latimer disappeared shortly after the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott, an enslaved man, couldn't sue for his freedom. Possibly fearing a return to enslavement, Latimer went underground. It was a great hardship for the rest of the Latimer family.
Lewis Latimer worked to help support his mother and siblings. Then, In 1864, at age 15, Latimer lied about his age in order to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Latimer was assigned to the gunboat USS Massasoit and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. He returned to Boston and took a position as an office assistant with the patent law firm Crosby & Gould. Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing drafters at the firm. Recognizing his talent and promise, the partners promoted him to drafter and, eventually, head drafter. During this time, he married Mary Wilson in November 1873. The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette and Louise Rebecca.
In 1874, while at the firm, Latimer co-invented an improvement to the bathroom compartment of trains. Two years later, he was sought out as a drafter by an instructor of children who were hard of hearing; the man wanted drawings for a patent application on a device he had created. The instructor was Alexander Graham Bell, and the device was the telephone.
Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent drawing, issued March 7, 1876.Working late into the evenings, Latimer labored to complete the patent application. It was submitted on Feb. 14, 1876, just hours before another application was made for a similar device. With Latimer's help, Bell won the patent rights to the telephone.
Latimer and Maxim
In 1880, after relocating to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as assistant manager and drafter for the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., which was owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief competitor of Edison, who had invented the electric light. Edison’s light consisted of a nearly airless glass bulb surrounding a carbon wire filament, typically made from bamboo, paper, or thread. When electricity ran through the filament, it became so hot that it literally glowed. Maxim hoped to improve on Edison’s light bulb by focusing on its main weakness: its brief life span, typically only a few days. Latimer set out to make a longer-lasting light bulb. He developed a way to encase the filament in a cardboard envelope that prevented the carbon from breaking up, giving the bulbs a much longer life while making them less expensive and more efficient.
Latimer’s expertise had become well known, and he was sought after to continue to improve on incandescent lighting as well as arc lighting. As more major cities began wiring their roadways for electric lighting, Latimer was selected to lead several planning teams. He helped install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City, and Montreal. He also oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings, and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England, and London.
Latimer was in charge of setting up an incandescent lamp department for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company in London. As part of this role, he supervised the production of his own invention of carbon filaments. Yet it was in London that Latimer suffered some of the greatest discrimination he faced during his career because English businessmen there were not used—or receptive—to being directed by a Black man. Of the experience, Latimer wrote in his diary:
"In London, I was in hot water from the day I came until I returned."
Still, Latimer succeeded in setting up the division.
Collaboration With Edison
Latimer started working for Edison in 1884 and became involved in Edison's infringement lawsuits. He worked in the legal department of the Edison Electric Light Co. as the chief drafter and patent specialist. He drafted sketches and documents related to Edison patents, looked over plants in search of patent infringements, carried out patent searches, and testified in court on Edison’s behalf. More often than not, Latimer's expert testimony helped Edison win his legal patent court fights—in such high esteem did the courts hold Latimer's testimony. He never worked in any of Edison's labs, but he was the only Black member of a group known as the "Edison Pioneers," men who had worked closely with the inventor in his early years. Latimer also co-authored a book on electricity published in 1890 called "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System."
In subsequent years, Latimer continued to innovate. In 1894, he created a safety elevator, a vast improvement on existing elevators. Then he obtained a patent for “Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas” that was used in restaurants, resorts, and office buildings. He also developed a method for making rooms more hygienic and climate-controlled, named an “Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting.” Latimer died on Dec. 11, 1928, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. His wife Mary had died four years earlier.
Despite racism and discrimination and with unequal access to education and opportunity, Latimer played a major role in the development of two products that greatly impacted the lives of Americans: the light bulb and the telephone. The fact that he was a Black American born in the 19th century made his many successes even more impressive.
Upon his death, the Edison Pioneers honored his memory with these words:
"He was of the colored race, the only one in our organization, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24, 1918. Broad-mindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristic of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings. "Mr. Latimer was a full member, and an esteemed one, of the Edison Pioneers."
On Nov. 9, 1929, Latimer was among the figures honored at the "Light's Golden Jubilee," an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Edison's invention of the light bulb, held in Dearborn, Michigan. Yet in 1954, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb, "no mention was made of the role played by Lewis Latimer," wrote Louis Haber in his book, "Black Pioneers of Science and Invention," who added, "Was the only black member of the Edison Pioneers already forgotten?" No reason has been given for Latimer's exclusion from the 75th-anniversary event, but the occasion did take place during the Jim Crow era, a period when federal, state, and local laws barred Black Americans from being full citizens.
Latimer was honored on May 10, 1968, when a public school in Brooklyn, New York—now known as the PS 56 Lewis Latimer School—was dedicated in his honor. During the ceremony, a painting of Latimer was presented to his grandson, Gerald Norman, Sr., who was at the event, which as also attended by Latimer's granddaughter, Winifred Latimer Norman. The New York State Legislature, the president of the Borough of Brooklyn, and a member of the New York City Board of Education also paid tribute to Latimer.
Who is Benjamin Banneker?
A free Black man who owned a farm near Baltimore, Benjamin Banneker was largely self-educated in astronomy and mathematics. He was later called upon to assist in the surveying of territory for the construction of the nation's capital. He also became an active writer of almanacs and exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson, politely challenging him to do what he could to ensure racial equality.
Born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, Banneker was the son of an ex-slave named Robert and his wife, Mary Banneky. Mary was the daughter of an Englishwoman named Molly Welsh, a former indentured servant, and her husband, Bannka, an ex-slave whom she freed and who asserted that he came from tribal royalty in West Africa. Because both of his parents were free, Benjamin escaped the wrath of slavery as well. He was taught to read by his maternal grandmother and for a very short time attended a small Quaker school. Banneker was primarily self-educated. His early accomplishments included constructing an irrigation system for the family farm and a wooden clock that was reputed to keep accurate time and ran for more than 50 years until his death. In addition, Banneker taught himself astronomy and accurately forecasted lunar and solar eclipses. After his father's passing, he ran his own farm for years, cultivating a business selling tobacco via crops.
Interests in Astronomy and Surveying
Banneker's talents and intelligence eventually came to the attention of the Ellicott family, entrepreneurs who had made a name and fortune by building a series of gristmills in the Baltimore area in the 1770s. George Ellicott had a large personal library and loaned Banneker numerous books on astronomy and other fields. In 1791, Andrew Ellicott, George’s cousin, hired Banneker to assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital city. He worked in the observatory tent using a zenith sector to record the movement of the stars. However, due to a sudden illness, Banneker was only able to work for Ellicott for about three months.
Banneker's true acclaim, however, came from his almanacs, which he published for six consecutive years during the later years of his life, between 1792 and 1797. These handbooks included his own astronomical calculations as well as opinion pieces, literature and medical and tidal information, with the latter particularly useful to fishermen. Outside of his almanacs, Banneker also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.
Letter to Jefferson!
Banneker's accomplishments extended into other realms as well, including civil rights. In 1791, Jefferson was secretary of state and Banneker considered the respected Virginian, though a slaveholder, to also be open to view African Americans as more than slaves. Thus, he wrote Jefferson a letter hoping that he would “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us." To further support his point, Banneker included a handwritten manuscript of an almanac for 1792, containing his astronomical calculations.
In his letter, Banneker acknowledged he was “of the African race” and a free man. He recognized that he was taking “a liberty” writing to Jefferson, which would be unacceptable considering “the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.” Banneker then respectfully chided Jefferson and other patriots for their hypocrisy, enslaving people like him while fighting the British for their own independence.
Jefferson quickly acknowledged Banneker's letter, writing a response. He told Banneker that he took “the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet [secretary of the French Academy of Sciences]...because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.” Banneker published Jefferson’s letter alongside his original piece of correspondence in his 1793 almanac. Banneker's outspokenness with regard to the issue of slavery earned him the widespread support of the abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania, both of which helped him publish his almanac.
Below is a letter from Jefferson to Banneker
dated August 30, 1791, from the Library of Congress:
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and; that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson
Later Life and Death!
Never married, Banneker continued to conduct his scientific studies throughout his life. By 1797, sales of his almanac had declined and he discontinued publication. In the following years, he sold off much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others to make ends meet, continuing to live in his log cabin.
On October 9, 1806, after his usual morning walk, Banneker died in his sleep, just a month short of his 75th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, all the items that had been on loan from his neighbor, George Ellicott, were returned by Banneker’s nephew. Also included was Banneker’s astronomical journal, providing future historians one of the few records of his life known to exist.
On Tuesday, October 11, at the family burial ground a few yards from this house, Benjamin Banneker was laid to rest. During the services, mourners were startled to see his house had caught on fire, quickly burning down. Nearly everything was destroyed, including his personal effects, furniture and wooden clock. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Banneker’s life was remembered in an obituary in the Federal Gazette of Philadelphia and has continued to be written about over the ensuing two centuries. With limited materials having been preserved related to Banneker's life and career, there's been a fair amount of legend and misinformation presented. In 1972, scholar Sylvio A. Bedini published an acclaimed biography on the 18th-century icon—The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science. A revised edition appeared in 1999.
Who is Thomas Jennings?
Thomas Jennings (1791–Feb. 12, 1856), a free-born African American and New Yorker who became a leader of the abolitionist movement, made his fortune as the inventor of a dry-cleaning process called “dry scouring.” Jennings was 30 years old when he received his patent on March 3, 1821 (U.S. patent 3306x), becoming the first African American inventor to own the rights to his invention.
Early Life and Career
Jennings was born in 1791 in New York City. He started his career as a tailor and eventually opened one of New York’s leading clothing shops. Inspired by frequent requests for cleaning advice, he began researching cleaning solutions. Jennings found that many of his customers were unhappy when their clothing became soiled. However, because of the material used to make the garments, conventional methods at the time were ineffective in cleaning them.
Invents Dry Cleaning
Jennings began experimenting with different solutions and cleaning agents. He tested them on various fabrics until he found the right combination to treat and clean them. He called his method “dry-scouring,” a process now known as dry cleaning.
Jennings filed for a patent in 1820 and was granted a patent for the "dry-scouring" (dry cleaning) process he had invented just a year later. Tragically, the original patent was lost in a fire. But by then, Jennings' process of using solvents to clean clothes was well-known and widely heralded. Jennings spent the first money he earned from his patent on legal fees to buy his family out of enslavement. After that, most of his income went to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, Jennings became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia.
Luckily for Jennings, he filed his patent at the right time. Under the United States patent laws of 1793 and 1836, both enslaved and free citizens could patent their inventions. However, in 1857, an enslaver named Oscar Stuart patented a "double cotton scraper" that was invented by one of the enslaved people forced to work for him. Historical records only show the real inventor's name as being Ned. Stuart's reasoning for his action was that "the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual."
In 1858, the U.S. patent office changed its patent regulations in response to a Supreme Court case related to Stuart's patent called Oscar Stuart v. Ned. The court ruled in favor of Stuart, noting that enslaved people were not citizens and could not be granted patents. But surprisingly, in 1861, the Confederate States of America passed a law granting patent rights to enslaved people In 1870, the U.S. government passed a patent law giving all American men including Black Americans the rights to their inventions.
Later Years and Death
Jennings' daughter, Elizabeth, an activist like her father, was the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit after being thrown off a New York City streetcar while on the way to church. With support from her father, Elizabeth sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company for discrimination and won her case in 1855. The day after the verdict, the company ordered its cars desegregated. After the incident, Jennings organized a movement against racial segregation in public transit in the city; the services were provided by private companies.
The same year, Jennings was one of the founders of the Legal Rights Association, a group that organized challenges to discrimination and segregation and gained legal representation to take cases to court. Jennings died just a few years later in 1859, which was itself just a few years before the practice he so reviled—enslavement—was abolished.
A decade after Elizabeth Jennings won her case, all New York City streetcar companies stopped practicing segregation. Jennings and his daughter had a hand in the effort to desegregate public facilities, a movement that lasted well into the Civil Rights Era a century later. Indeed, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., echoed many of the convictions that Jennings and his daughter had expressed and fought for 100 years before.
And the "dry-scouring" process Jennings invented is essentially the same method used by dry cleaning businesses worldwide to this day.
Unlock more information tomorrow!
Who is Edmond Berger?
was an African American inventor who invented the spark plug on 1839. Although the internal combustion engine, in which the current version of the spark plug is used, was only in the developmental stages in the mid 1800s, Mr. Edmond Berger is still given credit for the invention of the spark plug even without obtaining a patent.
What is a Spark Plug?
According to Britannica, a spark plug or sparking plug is "a device that fits into the cylinder head of an internal-combustion engine and carries two electrodes separated by an air gap across which current from a high-tension ignition system discharges to form a spark for igniting the fuel." More specifically, a spark plug has a metal threaded shell that's electrically isolated from a central electrode by a porcelain insulator. The central electrode is connected by a heavily insulated wire to the output terminal of an ignition coil. The spark plug's metal shell is screwed into the engine's cylinder head and thus electrically grounded.
The central electrode protrudes through the porcelain insulator into the combustion chamber, forming one or more spark gaps between the inner end of the central electrode and usually one or more protuberances or structures attached to the inner end of the threaded shell and designated the side, earth or ground electrodes.
How Spark Plugs Work?
The plug is connected to the high voltage generated by an ignition coil or magneto. As current flows from the coil, a voltage develops between the central and side electrodes. Initially, no current can flow because the fuel and air in the gap is an insulator. But as the voltage rises further, it begins to change the structure of the gases between the electrodes.
Once the voltage exceeds the dielectric strength of the gases, the gases become ionized. The ionized gas becomes a conductor and allows current to flow across the gap. Spark plugs usually require a voltage of 12,000–25,000 volts or more to "fire" properly, although it can go up to 45,000 volts. They supply higher current during the discharge process, resulting in a hotter and longer-duration spark.
As the current of electrons surges across the gap, it raises the temperature of the spark channel to 60,000 K. The intense heat in the spark channel causes the ionized gas to expand very quickly, like a small explosion. This is the "click" heard when observing a spark, similar to lightning and thunder.
The heat and pressure force the gases to react with each other. At the end of the spark event, there should be a small ball of fire in the spark gap as the gases burn on their own. The size of this fireball or kernel depends on the exact composition of the mixture between the electrodes and the level of combustion chamber turbulence at the time of the spark. A small kernel will make the engine run as though the ignition timing was retarded, and a large one as though the timing was advanced.
Who is George Crum?
George Crum (born George Speck, 1824–1914) was a renowned African American chef who worked at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York during the mid-1800s. According to culinary legend, Crum invented the potato chip during his work at the restaurant.
The Potato Chip Legend!
George Speck was born to parents Abraham Speck and Diana Tull on July 15, 1824. He grew up in upstate New York and, in the 1850s, was hired at Moon's Lake House, a high-end restaurant that catered to wealthy Manhattan families. A regular patron of the restaurant, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, frequently forgot Speck's given surname. This led him to ask waiters to relay various requests to “Crum,” thus giving Speck the name he is now known by.
According to popular legend, the potato chip was invented when a picky customer (Vanderbilt himself, according to some reports) repeatedly sent back an order of french fries, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated with the customer’s demands, Crum sought revenge by slicing a batch of potatoes paper-thin, frying them to a crisp, and seasoning them with lots of salt. Surprisingly, the customer loved them. Soon enough, Crum and Moon's Lake House became well-known for their special “Saratoga chips.”
Disputing The Legend
A number of notable accounts have disputed the story of Crum's culinary innovation. Recipes for frying thin potato slices had already been published in cookbooks by the early 1800s. Additionally, several reports on Crum himself—including a 1983 commissioned biography of the chef and his own obituary—curiously lacked any mention of potato chips whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Crum's sister, Kate Wicks, claimed to be the real inventor of the potato chip. Wick’s obituary, published in The Saratogian in 1924, read, "A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102, and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips." This statement is supported by Wicks’ own recollections of the tale, which were published in several periodicals during her lifetime. Wicks explained that she had sliced off a sliver of potato and it inadvertently fell into a hot frying pan. She had let Crum taste it and his enthusiastic approval led to the decision to serve the chips.
Visitors came from far and wide to Moon's Lake House for a taste of the famous Saratoga chips, sometimes even taking a 10-mile trip around the lake just to get to the restaurant. Cary Moon, the owner of Moon’s Lake House, later tried to claim credit for the invention and began producing and distributing potato chips in boxes. Once Crum opened his own restaurant in the 1860s in Malta, New York, he provided every table with a basket of chips.
Crum’s chips remained a local delicacy until the 1920s when a salesman and entrepreneur named Herman Lay (yes, that Lay) began traveling throughout the south and introducing potato chips to different communities. At that point, Crum's legacy was overtaken by the mass production and distribution of potato chips on a national scale.
Who is Clarence Thomas?
Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is a U.S. Supreme Court justice known for his conservative/libertarian leanings and for being the second Black person in history to serve on the Supreme Court. He consistently takes politically right-wing positions, strongly supports states' rights, and employs strict constructivism when interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Thomas is unafraid of voicing his dissent with the majority, even when doing so makes him politically unpopular.
His Early Life!
Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, in the small town of Pin Point, Georgia, the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas and Leola Williams. Thomas was abandoned by his father at the age of two and left to the care of his mother, who raised him as a Roman Catholic. When he was seven, Thomas's mother remarried and sent him and his younger brother to live with his grandfather. At his grandfather's request, Thomas left his all-Black high school to attend seminary school, where he was the only Black student on campus. Despite experiencing extensive racism, Thomas graduated with honors.
Thomas had considered becoming a priest, which was one reason he chose to attend St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary in Savannah, where he was one of just four Black students. Thomas was still on track to be a priest when he attended Conception Seminary College, but he left after hearing a student utter a racist comment in response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thomas transferred to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he founded the Black Student Union. After graduation, Thomas failed a military medical exam and this excluded him from the draft. He then enrolled in Yale Law School.
After graduating from law school, Thomas found it difficult to obtain a job. Many employers falsely believed that he received his law degree due only to affirmative action programs. Nevertheless, Thomas landed a job as an assistant U.S. attorney for Missouri under John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate, Thomas worked as a private attorney for an agriculture firm from 1976 to 1979. In 1979, he returned to work for Danforth as his legislative assistant. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981, he offered Thomas a job as assistant secretary of education in the Office of Civil Rights. Thomas accepted.
On May 6, 1982, Thomas accepted a position as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a post he held until March 12, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. In his autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," Thomas said he inherited an agency that was in disarray, mismanaged, and in deep trouble. He said he worked to bolster the management at the agency and that litigation cases filed by the EEOC involving discriminatory employment practices greatly increased under his tenure.
The Washington Post noted that "EEOC litigation volume grew threefold from the early to the late 1980s." Critics argued Thomas did not do enough to fight discriminatory personnel practices while he was chairman. For example, Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice said: “As chairman of the EEOC, Clarence Thomas failed to demonstrate a commitment to civil rights and liberties." And Douglas Frantz of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991, "Thomas’ personal view that racial quotas and affirmative-action programs patronize [Black Americans] shaped his governing of the EEOC. His philosophy led to clashes with Congress and special interest groups."
Supreme Court Nomination
Less than a year after Thomas was appointed to the appeals court, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—the nation's first Black Supreme Court justice—announced his retirement. Bush, impressed with Thomas' conservative positions, nominated him to fill the position. Facing a Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee and the wrath of civil rights groups, Thomas faced stiff opposition. Recalling how conservative Judge Robert Bork had doomed his nomination by providing detailed answers at his confirmation hearings, Thomas was hesitant to give lengthy responses to interrogators.
Anita Hill Case
Just before the end of his hearings, an FBI investigation was leaked to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding sexual harassment allegations leveled at Thomas by former EEOC staff worker Anita Hill. Hill was aggressively questioned by the committee and offered shocking details of Thomas' alleged sexual misconduct. Hill was the only witness to testify against Thomas, although another staffer offered similar allegations in a written statement.
Although Hill's testimony had transfixed the nation, preempted soap operas, and competed for airtime with the World Series, Thomas never lost his composure, maintaining his innocence throughout the proceedings, yet expressing his outrage at the "circus" the hearings had become. In the end, the judiciary committee was deadlocked at 7-7, and the confirmation was sent to the full Senate for a floor vote with no recommendation being made. Thomas was confirmed 52–48 along party lines in one of the narrowest margins in Supreme Court history.
Service To The Court
Once his nomination was secured and he took his seat on the High Court, Thomas quickly asserted himself as a conservative justice. Aligned initially with conservative justices—the late William Rehnquist and the late Antonin Scalia—and subsequently with conservative justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts, Thomas is still seen as the most conservative member of the Court. He has offered lone dissenting opinions and been the sole conservative voice on the Court at times.
Who is Garrett Morgan?
Garrett Morgan (March 4, 1877–July 27, 1963) was an inventor and businessman from Cleveland who is best known for inventing a device called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1914. The invention was later dubbed the gas mask.
His Early Life!
The son of a formerly enslaved man and woman, Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. His mother was of Native American, Black, and white descent (her father was a minister named Rev. Garrett Reed), and his father, was half-Black and half-white, the son of the Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan, who led Morgan's Raiders in the Civil War. Garrett was the seventh of 11 children, and his early childhood was spent attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of opportunities.
Although Morgan's formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he worked to give himself an education, hiring a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continuing his studies in English grammar. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer, teaching himself as much as he could about sewing machinery and experimenting with the process. Word of his experiments and his proficiency for fixing things traveled fast, and he worked for numerous manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.
In 1907, the inventor opened his sewing equipment and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would establish. In 1909, he expanded the enterprise to include a tailoring shop that employed 32 people. The new company turned out coats, suits, and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made.
Marriage and Family!
Morgan married twice, first to Madge Nelson in 1896; they were divorced in 1898. In 1908 he married Mary Anna Hasek, a seamstress from Bohemia: It was one of the earliest interracial marriages in Cleveland. They had three children, John P., Garrett A., Jr., and Cosmo H. Morgan.
The Safety Hood (Early Gas Mask)
In 1914, Morgan was awarded two patents for the invention of an early gas mask, the Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. He manufactured the mask and sold it nationally and internationally through the National Safety Device Company, or Nadsco, using a marketing strategy to avoid Jim Crow discrimination—what historian Lisa Cook calls "anonymity by dissociation." At the time, entrepreneurs sold their inventions by conducting live demonstrations. Morgan appeared in these events to the general public, with municipal fire departments, and city officials representing himself as his own assistant—a Native American man called "Big Chief Mason." In the South, Morgan hired whites, sometimes public safety professionals, to stage demonstrations for him. His newspaper advertisements featured smartly dressed white male models.
The gas mask proved very popular: New York City quickly adopted the mask, and, eventually, 500 cities followed suit. In 1916, a refined model of Morgan's gas mask was awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
The Lake Erie Crib Disaster
On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. No one had been able to reach the men: Eleven of them had died as had ten others attempting to rescue them. Called in the middle of the night six hours after the incident, Morgan and a team of volunteers donned the new "gas masks" and brought two workers out alive and recovered the bodies of 17 others. He personally gave artificial respiration to one of the men he rescued.
Afterward, Morgan's company received many additional requests from fire departments around the country that wished to purchase the new masks. However, the national news contained photographs of him, and officials in a number of southern cities canceled their existing orders when they discovered he was Black.
In 1917, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission reviewed the reports of heroism displayed during the disaster. Based on news reports that downplayed Morgan's role, the Carnegie board decided to give the prestigious "Hero" award to a minor figure in the rescue effort who was white, rather than to Morgan. Morgan protested, but the Carnegie Institution said he hadn't risked as much as the other person had because he had safety equipment.
Some reports say the Morgan gas mask was modified and used in World War I after the Germans unleashed chemical warfare at Ypres on April 22, 1915, although there's no strong evidence for it. Despite Morgan's popularity in the United States, there were dozens of other masks on the market by then, and most used in WWI were of English or French manufacture.
The Lake Erie Crib Disaster
In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established the "Cleveland Call." As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected businessman and was able to purchase a home and an automobile, invented by Henry Ford in 1903. In fact, Morgan was the first African American to purchase an automobile in Cleveland, and it was Morgan's experience while driving along the streets of that city that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.
After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic signal. While other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive way to produce a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan also had his invention patented in Great Britain and Canada.
Morgan stated in his patent for the traffic signal:
"This invention relates to traffic signals, and particularly to those which are adapted to be positioned adjacent the intersection of two or more streets and are manually operable for directing the flow of traffic...In addition, my invention contemplates the provision of a signal which may be readily and cheaply manufactured."
The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go, and an all-directional stop position. This "third position" halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely.
Morgan's hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red-, yellow-, and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000.
Throughout his life, Morgan was always experimenting to develop new concepts. Though the traffic signal came at the height of his career and became one of his most famous inventions, it was just one of several innovations he developed, manufactured, and sold over the years.
Morgan invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for the manually operated sewing machine. He also founded a company that made personal grooming products such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb.
As word of Morgan's life-saving inventions spread across North America and England, demand for these products grew. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions to demonstrate how his inventions worked.
Along with many others, Morgan lost most of his wealth with the stock market crash, but it didn't stop his inventive nature. He developed glaucoma, but at the time of his death he was still working on a new invention: a self-extinguishing cigarette.
Morgan died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 86. His life was long and full, and his creative energies were recognized both during and after his lifetime.
Morgan's inventions have had a tremendous impact on the safety and well-being of people all over the world—from miners to soldiers to first responders to ordinary car owners and pedestrians. Another ongoing legacy is his weekly newspaper, originally named the "Cleveland Call" and now called the "Cleveland Call and Post." His achievements as a son of formerly enslaved people, against all odds, and in the face of Jim Crow era discrimination, are inspiring.
Case Western University awarded him an honorary degree, and his papers are stored there.
Who is Elijah McCoy?
Elijah McCoy (May 2, 1844–October 10, 1929) was a Black American inventor who received more than 50 patents for his inventions during his lifetime. His most famous invention was a cup that feeds lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression "the real McCoy"—a term meaning "the real deal" or "the genuine article."
His Early Life!
Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. His parents—George and Mildred McCoy—had been enslaved from birth and became freedom seekers leaving Kentucky for Canada on the Underground Railroad. George McCoy enlisted in the British forces, and in return, he was awarded 160 acres of land for his service. When Elijah was 3, his family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Detroit, Michigan. They later moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where George opened a tobacco business. Elijah had 11 brothers and sisters. Even as a young child, he enjoyed playing with tools and machines and experimenting with different ways to fix and improve them.
At the age of 15, McCoy left the United States for a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, Scotland. After becoming certified, he returned to Michigan to pursue a position in his field. However, McCoy—like other Black Americans at the time—faced racial discrimination that prevented him from earning a position appropriate to his level of education. The only job he could find was that of a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. The fireman on a train was responsible for fueling the steam engine and for maintaining the oiler, which lubricated the engine's moving parts as well as the train's axles and bearings.
Because of his training, McCoy was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. At that time, trains needed to periodically stop and be lubricated to prevent overheating. McCoy developed a lubricator for steam engines that did not require the train to stop. His automatic lubricator used steam pressure to pump oil wherever it was needed. McCoy received a patent for this invention in 1872, the first of many he would be granted for his improvements to steam engine lubricators. These advancements improved transit by allowing trains to travel farther without pausing for maintenance and re-oiling.
McCoy's device not only improved train systems; versions of the lubricator eventually appeared in oil-drilling and mining equipment as well as in construction and factory tools. According to the patent, the device "provid[ed] for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine in order to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically." As a result, the lubricator improved efficiency in a variety of fields.
In 1868, Elijah McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart, who died four years later. A year later, McCoy married his second wife, Mary Eleanora Delaney. The couple had no children.
McCoy continued to improve on his automatic lubricator design and make designs for new devices. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators and the Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions. Later, McCoy became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters. McCoy also obtained patents for some of his other inventions, including an ironing board and a lawn sprinkler, which he had designed to reduce the work involved in his household tasks.
In 1922, McCoy and his wife Mary were in a car accident. Mary later died from her injuries, and McCoy experienced severe health problems for the rest of his life, complicating his professional obligations.
The Real McCoy
The expression "the real McCoy"—meaning "the real thing" (not a fake or inferior copy)—is a popular idiom among English-speakers. Its exact etymology is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the Scottish "the real McKay," which first appeared in a poem in 1856. Others believe the expression was first used by railroad engineers looking for "the real McCoy system," the lubricator equipped with McCoy's automatic drip cup rather than a poor knockoff. Whatever the etymology, the expression has been associated with McCoy for some time. In 2006, Andrew Moodie developed a play based on the inventor's life called "The Real McCoy."
In 1920, McCoy opened his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, to produce his products himself rather than licensing his designs to existing companies (many of the products he designed did not feature his name). Unfortunately, McCoy suffered in his later years, enduring a financial, mental, and physical breakdown that landed him in the hospital. He died on October 10, 1929, from senile dementia caused by hypertension after spending a year in the Eloise Infirmary in Michigan. McCoy was buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
McCoy was widely admired for his ingenuity and accomplishments, especially in the Black community. Booker T. Washington cited McCoy in his "Story of the Negro" as the Black inventor with the greatest number of U.S. patents. In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A historical marker stands outside his old workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Detroit is named in his honor
Who is John Lee Love?
ElJohn Lee Love (September 26, 1889?-December 26, 1931) was a Black inventor who developed the portable pencil sharpener, which he patented in 1897. Not much is known about his life but he is remembered for two inventions, the other being a plasterer's hawk, which works much like an artist's palette for a plasterer or mason. In the pantheon of African American inventors, Love is remembered for devising small things to make life easier.
His Early Life!
John Lee Love is believed to have been born on September 26, 1889, though another account lists his birth year as sometime between 1865 and 1877 during Reconstruction, which would have put his place of birth in the South. Not much else is known about Love's early days, including whether he had any formal schooling or what prompted him to tinker with and improve certain everyday objects.
We do know that he worked almost his entire life as a carpenter in Fall River, Massachusetts and that he patented his first invention, an improved plasterer's hawk, on July 9, 1895 (U.S. Patent No. 542,419).
The plasterer's hawk traditionally had been a flat, square wooden board, about nine inches long on each side, with a handle — basically, a post-like grip — that is perpendicular to the board and attached to its bottom. By putting the plaster, mortar, or (later) stucco on top of the board, the plasterer or mason could access it quickly and easily with the tool being used to apply it. The new design functioned much like an artist's palette.
As a carpenter, Love was likely well acquainted with the use of plaster and mortar. He believed that the hawks in use at the time were too bulky to be portable. His innovation was to design a hawk with a detachable handle and a foldable board made of aluminum, which must have been a lot easier to clean than wood.
Portable Pencil Sharpener
Another of Love's inventions, and one better known than the plasterer's hawk, had a much wider impact. It was the simple, portable pencil sharpener, the predecessor of the small plastic device that has been used by schoolchildren, teachers, college students, engineers, accountants, and artists the world over.
Prior to the invention of the pencil sharpener, a knife was the most common instrument used to sharpen pencils, which have been around in one form or another since Roman times — although pencils weren't mass-produced in a form familiar to us until 1662 in Nuremberg, Germany. But whittling a point on a pencil was a time-consuming process and pencils were becoming more and more popular. The solution soon hit the market in the form of the world's first mechanical pencil sharpener, invented by Parisian mathematician Bernard Lassimone on October 20, 1828 (French patent number 2444).
Love's reworking of Lassimone's device seems intuitive now, but it was revolutionary at the time. Basically, the new model was portable and included a compartment to capture the shavings. The Massachusetts carpenter applied for a patent for what he called his "improved device" in 1897, and it was approved on November 23, 1897 (U.S. Patent No. 594,114).
His design didn't look much like today's portable sharpeners, but it worked by a similar principle. The pencil was inserted into a conical sheath and was moved in a circle, causing the sheath and the blade inside it to rotate around the pencil, sharpening it. Instead of turning the pencil against the blade, as with today's portable sharpeners, the blade was turned against the pencil by the circular motion.
Love wrote in his patent application that his sharpener could also be designed in a more ornate fashion to be used as a desk ornament or paperweight. It eventually became known as the "Love Sharpener," and his principle has been in continuous use since he introduced it.
We don't know how many more inventions Love could have given the world. Love died, along with nine other passengers, on December 26, 1931, when the car they were riding in collided with a train near Charlotte, North Carolina. But his ideas left the world a more efficient place.
Who is Alexander Miles?
Alexander Miles of Duluth, Minnesota patented an electric elevator on October 11, 1887. His innovation in the mechanism to open and close elevator doors greatly improved elevator safety. Miles is notable for being a Black inventor and successful businessperson in 19th-century America.
Elevator Patient for Automatic Closing Doors
The problem with elevators at that time was that the doors of the elevator and the shaft had to be opened and closed manually. This could be done either by those riding in the elevator, or a dedicated elevator operator. People would forget to close the shaft door. As a result, there were accidents with people falling down the elevator shaft. Miles was concerned when he saw a shaft door left open when he was riding an elevator with his daughter.
Miles improved the method of the opening and closing of elevator doors and the shaft door when an elevator was not on that floor. He created an automatic mechanism that closed access to the shaft by the action of the cage moving. His design attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When it went over drums positioned at the appropriate spots above and below a floor, it automated opening and closing the doors with levers and rollers.
Miles was granted a patent on this mechanism and it is still influential in elevator design today. He was not the only person to get a patent on automated elevator door systems, as John W. Meaker was granted a patent 13 years earlier.
Early Life of Inventor Alexander Miles
Miles was born in 1838 in Ohio to Michael Miles and Mary Pompy and is not recorded as having been enslaved. He moved to Wisconsin and worked as a barber. He later moved to Minnesota where his draft registration showed he was living in Winona in 1863. He showed his talents for invention by creating and marketing hair care products.
He met Candace Dunlap, a White woman who was a widow with two children. They married and moved to Duluth, Minnesota by 1875, where he lived for more than two decades. They had a daughter, Grace, in 1876.
In Duluth, the couple invested in real estate, and Miles operated the barbershop at the upscale St. Louis Hotel. He was the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.
Later Life of Alexander Miles
Miles and his family lived in comfort and prosperity in Duluth. He was active in politics and fraternal organizations. In 1899 he sold real estate investments in Duluth and moved to Chicago. He founded The United Brotherhood as a life insurance company that would insure Black people, who were often denied coverage at that time.
Recessions took a toll on his investments, and he and his family resettled in Seattle, Washington. At one time it was believed he was the wealthiest Black person in the Pacific Northwest, but that did not last. In the last decades of his life, he was again working as a barber.
He died in 1918 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Who is Richard Spikes?
Richard Bowie Spikes was a prolific inventor with more than a dozen patents to his name. Primarily interested in automobile mechanics, Spikes also sought to improve the operation of items as varied as barber chairs and trolley cars. Professionally, he worked as a mechanic, a saloon keeper, and a barber, occupations that likely influenced his many later inventions.
Born to Monroe and Medora Spikes on October 2, 1878, Spikes came from a large family of at least six siblings. His younger brother, Benjamin Franklin Spikes, known as “Reb,” would go on to become a well-known jazz musician. The 1880 census lists his birthplace as Texas, though in later years Spikes would report the location as actually being in Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma).
In 1900, Spikes married Lula B. Charlton. The couple had one son, born in 1902. During the early 1900s, the family moved often, living in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, before settling in California.
On April 9, 1907, while living in Bisbee, Arizona, Spikes patented a beer-tapper (U.S. Patent number 850,070). Connected to a keg, the tap used tubing to ease the release of beer from the barrel, while also improving freshness over time. This technology is still in use today.
Inventions and More!
Spikes’ next invention was for a self-locking rack for billiard cues. He received the patent on October 11, 1910 (U.S. Patent # 972,277), while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A decade later, on December 14, 1920, Spikes, now residing in Fort Bragg, California, successfully patented a “trolley pole arrester” (U.S. Patent 1,362,197). According to the patent application, Spikes’ device would automatically pull down the pole when the circuit is broken to prevent the breaking of the trolley wire and injury to the pole.”
Over the next forty years, Spikes would patent at least seven more items, including a break testing machine in 1921 (U.S. Patent number 1,441,383); a pantograph for conveying electrical current to trolleys’ wires in 1923 (U.S. Patent number 1,461,988); a combination milk bottle opener and cover in 1926 (U.S. Patent number 1,590,557); a device to obtain average samples and temperatures of tank liquids, for automobiles and industry in 1931 (U.S. Patent number 1,828,753); an improved gear shift transmission system in 1932 (U.S. Patent number 1,889,814); a horizontally swinging barber’s chair in 1950 (U.S. Patent number 2,517,936); and, finally, an automatic brake safety system in 1962 (U.S. Patent 3,015,522) at the age of 84.
Of all these innovations, the best-known are those related to automotive technology. Spikes’ gear shifting device aimed to keep the gears for various speeds in constant mesh, enhancing the turn-of-the-century invention of the automatic transmission. His automatic brake safety system was also significant; according to the patent application, it provided provide a reserve braking action in case of damage to the normal braking means and is still used in some buses as a fail-safe means of stopping the vehicle.
Spikes is also widely credited with patenting an automobile signaling system (turn signal) in the early 1910s, though a patent record has yet to be located at this time. The system was installed on a Pierce-Arrow motorcar.
Richard B. Spikes died on January 22, 1965 in Los Angeles, California at the age of 86.
Who is Richard Spikes?
Booker T. Washington (April 5, 1856–November 14, 1915) was a prominent Black educator, author, and leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Enslaved from birth, Washington rose to a position of power and influence, founding the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881 and overseeing its growth into a well-respected Black university. Washington was a controversial figure in his time and since, criticized for being too "accommodating" on the issues of segregation and equal rights.
Booker T. Washington was born in April 1856 on a small farm in Hale's Ford, Virginia. He was given the middle name "Taliaferro" but no last name. His mother Jane was an enslaved woman and worked as the plantation cook. In Washington's autobiography, he wrote that his father—whom he never knew —was a White man, possibly from a neighboring plantation. Booker had an older brother, John, also fathered by a White man.
Jane and her sons occupied a tiny, one-room cabin. Their dreary home lacked proper windows and had no beds for its occupants. Booker's family rarely had enough to eat and sometimes resorted to theft to supplement their meager provisions. Around 1860, Jane married Washington Ferguson, an enslaved man from a nearby plantation. Booker later took the first name of his stepfather as his last name.
During the Civil War, the enslaved Americans on Booker's plantation, like many enslaved people in the South, continued to work for the enslaver even after the issuance of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865 after the war ended, Booker T. Washington and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker's stepfather had found a job as a salt packer for the local salt works.
Working in the Mines
Living conditions in their new home were no better than those back at the plantation. Nine-year-old Booker worked alongside their stepfather packing salt into barrels. He despised the work but did learn to recognize numbers by taking note of those written on the sides of the salt barrels.
Like many formerly enslaved Americans during the post-Civil War era, Booker longed to learn how to read and write. When an all-Black school opened in a nearby community, Booker begged to go. His stepfather refused, insisting that the family needed the money he brought in from the salt packing. Booker eventually found a way to attend school at night. When he was 10, his stepfather took him out of school and sent him to work in the nearby coal mines.
From Miner to Student!
In 1868, 12-year-old Booker T. Washington found a job as a houseboy in the home of the wealthiest couple in Malden, General Lewis Ruffner, and his wife Viola. Mrs. Ruffner was known for her high standards and strict manner. Washington, responsible for cleaning the house and other chores, impressed Mrs. Ruffner, a former teacher, with his sense of purpose and a commitment to improving himself. She allowed him to attend school for an hour a day.
Determined to continue his education, 16-year-old Washington left the Ruffner household in 1872 to attend Hampton Institute, a school for Black people in Virginia. After traveling over 300 miles—by train, stagecoach, and on foot—Washington arrived at Hampton Institute in October of that year.
Miss Mackie, the principal at Hampton, was not entirely convinced that the young country boy deserved a place at her school. She asked Washington to clean and sweep a recitation room for her; he did the job so thoroughly that Miss Mackie pronounced him fit for admission. In his memoir "Up From Slavery," Washington later referred to that experience as his "college examination."
To pay his room and board, Washington worked as a janitor at Hampton Institute. Rising early in the morning to build the fires in the school rooms, Washington also stayed up late every night to complete his chores and work on his studies.
Washington greatly admired the headmaster at Hampton, General Samuel C. Armstrong, and considered him his mentor and role model. Armstrong, a veteran of the Civil War, ran the institute like a military academy, conducting daily drills and inspections.
Although academic studies were offered at Hampton, Armstrong placed emphasis on teaching trades. Washington embraced all that Hampton Institute offered him, but he was drawn to a teaching career rather than a trade. He worked on his oratory skills, becoming a valued member of the school's debate society.
At his 1875 commencement, Washington was among those called upon to speak. A reporter from The New York Times was present at the commencement and praised the speech given by 19-year-old Washington in his column the following day.
First Teaching Job
Booker T. Washington returned to Malden after his graduation with his newly acquired teaching certificate. He was hired to teach at the school in Tinkersville, the same school he had himself attended before Hampton Institute. By 1876, Washington was teaching hundreds of students—children during the day and adults at night.
During his early years of teaching, Washington developed a philosophy toward the advancement of Black Americans. He believed in achieving the betterment of his race by strengthening the character of his students and teaching them a useful trade or occupation. By doing so, Washington believed Black Americans would assimilate more easily into white society, proving themselves an essential part of that society.
After three years of teaching, Washington appears to have gone through a period of uncertainty in his early 20s. He abruptly and inexplicably quit his post, enrolling in a Baptist theological school in Washington, D.C. Washington quit after only six months and rarely ever mentioned this period of his life.
In February 1879, Washington was invited by General Armstrong to give the spring commencement speech at Hampton Institute that year. His speech was so impressive and so well received that Armstrong offered him a teaching position at his alma mater. Washington began teaching night classes in the fall of 1879. Within months of his arrival at Hampton, night enrollment tripled.
In 1881, General Armstrong was asked by a group of educational commissioners from Tuskegee, Alabama for the name of a qualified white man to run their new school for Black Americans. The general instead suggested Washington for the job.
At only 25 years old, formerly enslaved Booker T. Washington became the principal of what would become Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. When he arrived at Tuskegee in June 1881, however, Washington found that the school had not yet been built. State funding was earmarked only for teachers' salaries, not for supplies or the building of the facility.
Washington quickly found a suitable plot of farmland for his school and raised enough money for a down payment. Until he could secure the deed to that land, he held classes in an old shack adjacent to a Black Methodist church. The first classes began an astonishing 10 days after Washington's arrival. Gradually, once the farm was paid for, the students enrolled at the school helped repair the buildings, clear the land, and plant vegetable gardens. Washington received books and supplies donated by his friends at Hampton.
As word spread of the great strides made by Washington at Tuskegee, donations began to come in, mainly from people in the north who supported the education of formerly enslaved people. Washington went on a fundraising tour throughout the northern states, speaking to church groups and other organizations. By May 1882, he had collected enough money to construct a large new building on the Tuskegee campus. (During the school's first 20 years, 40 new buildings would be constructed on campus, most of them by student labor.)
Marrige, Fatherhood, and Loss
In August 1882, Washington married Fanny Smith, a young woman who had just graduated from Hampton. A great asset to her husband, Fanny became very successful at raising money for Tuskegee Institute and arranged many dinners and benefits. In 1883, Fanny gave birth to the couple's daughter Portia. Sadly, Washington's wife died the following year of unknown causes, leaving him a widower at only 28 years old.
In 1885, Washington married again. His new wife, 31-year-old Olivia Davidson, was the "lady principal" of Tuskegee at the time of their marriage. (Washington held the title "administrator.") They had two children together—Booker T. Jr. (born in 1885) and Ernest (born in 1889).
Olivia Washington developed health problems after the birth of their second child and she died of a respiratory ailment in 1889 at the age of 34. Washington had lost two wives within a period of only six years.
Washington married his third wife, Margaret Murray, in 1892. She, too, was the "lady principal" at Tuskegee. She helped Washington run the school and care for his children and accompanied him on his many fundraising tours. In later years, she was active in several Black women's organizations. Margaret and Washington were married until his death. They had no biological children together but adopted Margaret's orphaned niece in 1904.
The Growth of Tuskegee Institute
As Tuskegee Institute continued to grow both in enrollment and in reputation, Washington nonetheless found himself in the constant struggle of trying to raise money to keep the school afloat. Gradually, however, the school gained statewide recognition and became a source of pride for Alabamans, leading the Alabama legislature to allocate more funds toward the salaries of instructors. The school also received grants from philanthropic foundations that supported education for Black Americans.
Tuskegee Institute offered academic courses but placed the greatest emphasis on industrial education, focusing on practical skills that would be valued in the southern economy such as farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, and building construction. Young women were taught housekeeping, sewing, and mattress-making.
Always on the lookout for new money-making ventures, Washington conceived the idea that Tuskegee Institute could teach brick-making to its students, and eventually make money selling its bricks to the community. Despite several failures in the early stages of the project, Washington persisted—and eventually succeeded.
'The Atlanta Compromise' Speech
By the 1890s, Washington had become a well-known and popular speaker, although his speeches were considered controversial by some. For instance, he delivered a speech at Fisk University in Nashville in 1890 in which he criticized Black ministers as uneducated and morally unfit. His remarks generated a firestorm of criticism from the Black community, but he refused to retract any of his statements.
In 1895, Washington delivered the speech that brought him great fame. Speaking in Atlanta at the Cotton States and International Exposition, Washington addressed the issue of racial relations in the United States. The speech came to be known as "The Atlanta Compromise."
Washington expressed his firm belief that Black and White Americans should work together to achieve economic prosperity and racial harmony. He urged southern whites to give Black businessmen a chance to succeed in their endeavors.
What Washington did not support, however, was any form of legislation that would promote or mandate racial integration or equal rights. In a nod to segregation, Washington proclaimed: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
His speech was widely praised by southern White people, but many in the Black community were critical of his message and accused Washington of being too accommodating to whites, earning him the name "The Great Accommodator."
Tour of Europe and Autobiography
Washington gained international acclaim during a tour of Europe in 1899. Washington gave speeches to various organizations and socialized with leaders and celebrities, including Queen Victoria and Mark Twain.
Before leaving for the trip, Washington stirred up controversy when he was asked to comment on the murder of a Black man in Georgia who had been strung up and burned alive. He declined to comment on the horrific incident, adding that he believed that education would prove to be the cure for such actions. His tepid response was condemned by many Black Americans.
In 1900, Washington formed the National Negro Business League (NNBL), with the goal of promoting Black-owned businesses. The following year, Washington published his successful autobiography, "Up From Slavery." The popular book found its way into the hands of several philanthropists, resulting in many large donations to Tuskegee Institute. Washington's autobiography remains in print to this day and is considered by many historians to be one of the most inspirational books written by a Black American.
The stellar reputation of the institute brought in many notable speakers, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie and feminist Susan B. Anthony. Famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver became a member of the faculty and taught at Tuskegee for nearly 50 years.
Dinner With President Roosevelt
Washington found himself at the center of controversy once again in October 1901, when he accepted an invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt to dine at the White House. Roosevelt had long admired Washington and had even sought his advice on a few occasions. Roosevelt felt it only fitting that he invite Washington to dinner.
But the very notion that the president had dined with a Black man at the White House created a furor among White people—both northerners and southerners. (Many Black Americans, however, took it as a sign of progress in the quest for racial equality.) Roosevelt, stung by the criticism, never again issued an invitation. Washington benefited from the experience, which seemed to seal his status as the most important Black man in America.
Washington continued to draw criticism for his accommodationist policies. Two of his greatest critics were William Monroe Trotter, a prominent Black newspaper editor and activist, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a Black faculty member at Atlanta University. Du Bois criticized Washington for his narrow views on the race issue and for his reluctance to promote an academically strong education for Black Americans.
Washington saw his power and relevance dwindle in his later years. As he traveled around the globe giving speeches, Washington seemed to ignore glaring problems in America, such as race riots, lynchings, and the disenfranchisement of Black voters in many southern states.
Although Washington later spoke out more forcefully against discrimination, many Black Americans would not forgive him for his willingness to compromise with White people at the cost of racial equality. At best, he was viewed as a relic from another era; at worst, a hindrance to the advancement of his race.
Washington's frequent travel and busy lifestyle eventually took a toll on his health. He developed high blood pressure and kidney disease in his 50s and became seriously ill while on a trip to New York in November 1915. Insisting that he die at home, Washington boarded a train with his wife for Tuskegee. He was unconscious when they arrived and died a few hours later on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59. Booker T. Washington was buried on a hill overlooking the Tuskegee campus in a brick tomb built by students.
From an enslaved man to the founder of a Black university, Booker T. Washington's life traces the vast changes undergone and distances traversed by Black Americans after the Civil War and into the 20th century. He was an educator, prolific writer, orator, adviser to presidents, and considered the most prominent Black American at the height of his career. His "accommodationist" approach to advancing the economic lives and rights of Black people in America was controversial even in its own time and remains controversial to this day.
Meet Alice Parker!
When it’s cold outside during the winter months, it’s nice to go inside your home or apartment, turn on the central heat and feel all warm and cozy, right? Well, we all have inventor Alice Parker to thank for that. She invented a furnace that supplied central heating for entire homes and buildings.
At the time it was, and still is, much safer than burning firewood. Her heating furnace was different from the other furnaces around at that time. Her design had air ducts that allowed heat to spread throughout the structure. Parker’s invention included a multiple burner system and used natural gas. What made it especially unique is that it was like later zone heating, where the temperature could be moderated in different areas of a building.
Parker’s patented design, which was filed on December 23, 1919, allowed for cool air to be drawn into the furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design was unique because it used natural gas as its fuel instead of coal or wood that had been previously used.
Parker was born in Morristown, New Jersey. She attended Howard University Academy, a high school located in Washington D.C., and was granted a certificate with honors in 1910. Parker is said to have been inspired for her design because she felt her fireplace was not effective enough in warming her home through the cold New Jersey winters. Her invention was convenient because it meant that people did not have to go outside and chop or buy wood. It also decreased the risk of house or building fires that heating units posed by eliminating the need to leave a burning fireplace on throughout the night. Although her initial designs were never used, her idea that natural gas and ducts could be used to heat different areas of a house was a major step towards the heating systems use today.
Parker’s filing a patent was a remarkable milestone, as she was an African American woman in the early 20th century since her filing for a patent preceded both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Both of which helped remove many of the barriers that women of her generation faced. At this time, African American women had very limited opportunities to do anything entrepreneurial on a big scale, but Parker’s patent for her invention during that time not only went pushed through barriers, it was an outstanding achievement that we benefit from today.
Lonnie Johnson is a former Air Force and NASA engineer who invented the massively popular Super Soaker water gun.
Who Is Lonnie Johnson?
African American engineer and inventor Lonnie Johnson earned his master's degree in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University and went on to work for the U.S. Air Force and the NASA space program. After tinkering with the invention of a high-powered water gun, Johnson's Super Soaker became a top-selling item by the early 1990s. He has since been developing the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), an engine that converts heat directly into electricity, which Johnson's sees as the path to low-cost solar power.
Early Life, Family and Education
Lonnie George Johnson was born on October 6, 1949, in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at nearby Air Force bases, while his mother worked in a laundry and as a nurse's aid. During the summers, both of Johnson's parents also picked cotton on his grandfather's farm.
Out of both interest and economic necessity, Johnson's father was a skilled handyman who taught his six children to build their own toys. When Johnson was still a small boy, he and his dad built a pressurized chinaberry shooter out of bamboo shoots. At the age of 13, Johnson attached a lawnmower engine to a go-kart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over.
Johnson dreamed of becoming a famous inventor and, during his teenage years, began to grow more curious about the way things worked and more ambitious in his experimentation—sometimes to the detriment of his family. "Lonnie tore up his sister's baby doll to see what made the eyes close," his mother later recalled. Another time, he nearly burned the house down when he attempted to cook up rocket fuel in one of his mother's saucepans and the concoction exploded.
Growing up in Mobile in the days of legal segregation, Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-Black facility, where, despite his precocious intelligence and creativity, he was told not to aspire beyond a career as a technician. Nevertheless, inspired by the story of famed African American inventor George Washington Carver, Johnson persevered in his dream of becoming an inventor.
Nicknamed "The Professor" by his high school buddies, Johnson represented his school at a 1968 science fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). The fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where, just five years earlier, Governor George Wallace had tried to prevent two Black students from enrolling at the school by standing in the doorway of the auditorium.
The only Black student in the competition, Johnson debuted a compressed-air-powered robot, called "the Linex," that he had painstakingly built from junkyard scraps over the course of a year. Much to the chagrin of the university officials, Johnson won first prize. "The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition," Johnson later recalled, "was 'Goodbye' and 'Y'all drive safe, now.'"
After graduating with Williamson's last segregated class, in 1969, Johnson attended Tuskegee University on a scholarship. He earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, and two years later he received a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the school.
Johnson went on to join the U.S. Air Force, becoming an important member of the government scientific establishment. He was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. Johnson moved on to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979, working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn, before returning to the Air Force in 1982.
Who invented the doorknob? Although it is difficult to provide an exact date of when door knobs first came into use, the first documentation of the invention of a door knob was in 1878. The U.S. Patent Office received a submission made for improvements on a door-closing device by an African American inventor named Osbourn Dorsey.
Who is the inventor of the door knob?
The first patent was given for a door knob and an internal door-latching mechanism in 1878 to an African American inventor
called Osborn Dorsey.
Who was Osbourn Dorsey? Osbourn Dorsey was an African-American man who invented the doorknob and doorstop in December of 1878. Osbourn Dorsey’s official birth date is unknown. His estimated birth date is around September 19, 1862.
How was the door knob invented?
The earliest door knobs were made from a variety of materials and not all of them functioned with just a simple turn. … China or ceramic knobs were mainly imported from France and England until the first U.S. patent was granted for making door knobs out of potter’s clay, and cast-metal knobs were introduced around 1846.
Who Was Granville T. Woods?
The Queen City was proud of this prolific inventor, who earned more than 50 patents in his lifetime. The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette [27 February 1889] had this to say:
“The lecture room of the Young Men’s Christian Association was filled last night with an audience which listened interestedly to a lecture on electricity and its modern applications by Mr. Granville T. Woods, the well known colored electrician of this city. Mr. Woods is one of the foremost electricians of the country and his many inventions have shown an amount of skill and dexterity in dealing with the most potent and mysterious of all forces, which places him in the front rank of inventors also.”
Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio and moved to Cincinnati around 1880. Although initially employed by the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad, Woods set up his own engineering and electrical company, with offices on Lodge Street, near Fountain Square.
His patents are quite varied, from industrial steam boilers to a new design for electric batteries to an “Amusement Apparatus” that anticipates the slot car racetrack sets that were popular in the 1960s. Woods explained in his 1899 patent application that his “Amusement Apparatus” could be built as a toy, or at full scale:
“The apparatus may be constructed on a large or a small scale, as desired, and the moving cars or device may be capable of carrying persons or objects or not, as desired and according to the space to be occupied.”
Who Was Madam C.J. Walker?
Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty in the South to become one of the wealthiest African American women of her time. She used her position to advocate for the advancement of black Americans and for an end to lynching.
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, one of six children of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, former slaves-turned sharecroppers after the Civil War. Orphaned at age seven, Walker lived with her older sister Louvenia, and the two worked in the cotton fields. Partly to escape her abusive brother-in-law, at age 14 Walker married Moses McWilliams. When her husband died in 1887, Walker became a single parent of two-year old daughter Lelia (later known as A’Lelia).
Seeking a way out of poverty, in 1889, Walker moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her four brothers were barbers. There, she worked as a laundress and cook. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she met leading black men and women, whose education and success likewise inspired her. In 1894, she married John Davis, but the marriage was troubled, and the couple later divorced.
Struggling financially, facing hair loss, and feeling the strain of years of physical labor, Walker’s life took a dramatic turn in 1904. That year, she not only began using African American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone’s "The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” but she also joined Malone’s team of black women sales agents. A year later, Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married ad-man Charles Joseph Walker, renamed herself “Madam C.J. Walker,” and with $1.25, launched her own line of hair products and straighteners for African American women, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”
Initially, Walker’s husband helped with advertising and establishing a mail order business. After the pair divorced in 1910, she relocated to Indianapolis and built a factory for her Walker Manufacturing Company. An advocate of black women’s economic independence, she opened training programs in the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions. Ultimately, Walker employed 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917.
Walker’s business grew rapidly, with sales exceeding $500,000 in the final year of her life. Her total worth topped $1 million dollars, and included a mansion in Irvington, New York dubbed “Villa Lewaro;” and properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
As her wealth increased, so did her philanthropic and political outreach. Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for six African American students at Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement, donating $5,000 to the NAACP’s efforts. Just prior to dying of kidney failure, Walker revised her will, bequeathing two-thirds of future net profits to charity, as well as thousands of dollars to various individuals and schools.
Who was Matthew A. Cherry?
Matthew A. Cherry, the inventor of the tricycle, was born on February 5, 1834 in Washington, D.C. While not much is known about his early life, it is evident that he had a passion for revolutionizing transportation. He is known for his improvement on the velocipede, followed by his invention of both the tricycle and the streetcar fender.
Cherry prefaced his inventions with a great improvement on the velocipede. A precursor to the modern-day bicycle, this vehicle consisted of a metal seat frame with wheels attached. The riders were able to transport themselves quickly by moving their feet along the ground to propel the frame. Before pedals, this was quite a fast way to travel around town. Cherry’s model of the velocipede was an improvement on past versions, and eventually his model evolved into the tricycle, which is still used today.
In May 1888, Cherry received his patent for the tricycle. Even today, tricycles are the choice of transportation for many as opposed to bicycles, because of their increased safety and carrying capacity. On a bicycle, the rider is required to look down, which decreases visibility. On a tricycle, however, the rider looks forward which improves posture and allows the rider to see oncoming traffic. Additionally, the tricycle has increased stability from the third wheel, which can make it easier to carry objects from place to place. In many Asian countries, motorized tricycles are one of the primary methods of transportation, used for transporting both passengers and goods.
On January 1, 1895, Cherry received a patent for the streetcar fender. Before this device was developed, streetcars would become incredibly damaged when they collided with other objects, often leading to significant repairs. Cherry recognized this problem, and invented the fender, which is a piece of metal that attaches to the front of a streetcar and acts as a shock absorber. This can protect the front of the car from needing extensive repairs, and absorb some of the impact from the collision, which can potentially protect passengers from injury. Today, the streetcar fender in some form is used on almost every automobile manufactured anywhere in the world and is commonly referred to as a “bumper.”
Matthew Cherry seems to have disappeared from the public record. There is no information available on him after January 1, 1895, the date he received the patent for the streetcar fender. He was 61 at that time.
This month we’re talking about inventors who brought their unique talents and gifts to the world of transportation. Our next inventor, Frederick McKinley Jones, was elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and awarded the National Medal of Technology. He was the first African American to receive both honors and has been called “one of the most prolific Black inventors ever.”
Jones became an inventor after a challenging childhood. The young innovator taught himself a variety of trades, including mechanical and electrical engineering. Over the course of his career, Jones received more than 60 patents—most of them related to refrigeration technology, but others pertaining to x-ray machines, engines, and sound technology. Like many of our other highlighted inventors, Jones was a jack of many trades.
Inventor profile: Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and experienced a challenging childhood. His mother deserted him at a young age and his father died a few short years later. At the age of 11, Jones was fending for himself. He worked in Cincinnati doing a variety of odd jobs, including janitorial work in a garage where he learned the ins and outs of automobile mechanics.
Jones became a full mechanic by age 14, and by the age of 19 had built several cars and become a well-known racer in the Great Lakes Bay region. By the age of 20, Jones earned an engineering license in Minnesota, where he had moved by 1912, and had been hired to do mechanical work on a farm. His talent for mechanics was apparent to all those around him, and he spent countless hours educating himself in his spare time in addition to his regular work.
During World War I, Jones served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army and an electrician, where he rewired his camp for electricity, telephone, and telegraph services. With his experience as a mechanic, he was often called on to make repairs to machines and other equipment.
Jones brought his expert skillset to dozens of different fields of work.
After World War I, Jones returned to the farm in Minnesota, where he educated himself further in the realm of electronics. When the nearby town decided to fund a new radio station, Jones was able to build the transmitter that was needed to broadcast programming.
Jones also developed a device that was able to combine moving pictures with sound. Subsequently, Joseph A. Numero, a sound producer for the film industry, hired Jones to help him improve his work. He also developed a device that would deliver tickets and return change to customers at movie box offices.
World War II efforts
Jones invented everything from snowmobiles to machines that improved the entertainment industry to portable cooling units for trucks transporting perishable food—his most noted innovation.
Frederick McKinley Jones standing next to truck outfitted with a mobile refrigeration unit, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
In the 1930s, Jones designed and patented a portable air-cooling device for trucks transporting food. Jones then founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company with Numero and later adapted his portable, air-cooling device to fit trains and aquatic vehicles. His invention allowed perishable food to be transported around the world: “mobile refrigeration was born.”
When he invented mobile refrigeration, Jones changed the way we transported food, and it continues to impact our lives today. He changed the way we eat, because now we can get fresh produce during any season of the year in the United States and other parts of the world. Bringing refrigeration to the transportation world allowed for things like fruit—something that used to be seasonal—to be transported across the world.
And Jones’ device allowed for other necessities to be transported during times of need (like during wartime). Jones’ air-cooling device changed the course of World War II, because it was used to preserve blood, medicine, and food for US troops. His innovation was critical in storing blood serums for blood transfusions. By 1949, the U.S. Thermo Control Company was worth millions of dollars and had created a life-saving legacy.
A lasting legacy
Jones was recognized for his achievements both during his life and afterward. In 1944, Jones was the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. He died in 1961, however, people continue to recognize his achievements.
Frederick McKinley Jones’ air cooling unit patent. Photo from Google Patents.
In 1991, Jones was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H. W. Bush. Although he was not there to receive the award, his wife attended the ceremony that was held at the White House Rose Garden. Although he was not alive to see it, Jones was the first African American to receive this prestigious award. He was also inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.
Jones maintains his status as a highly regarded, intelligent, African American inventor and continues to be recognized for his work. He was a multi-disciplinary, diversely talented inventor that brought life to his fantastic ideas.
Who was Gladys Mae West?
Dr. Gladys West is a mathematician whose calculations and computer programming helped construct a geoid (a mathematical model of the earth’s shape). West’s modeling directly contributed to the ubiquitous use of the global positioning system (GPS) today.
Born on October 27, 1930, Gladys Mae Brown resided in Sutherland, Virginia in rural Dinwiddie County. Her parents owned their small farm and West picked corn, cotton, and tobacco from the time she was young. Early on, West’s teachers encouraged her love of mathematics, which she pursued as a path out of agricultural work. As valedictorian of her high school class, she earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University).
After graduating in 1952, West applied for a host of government jobs. In a field dominated by white men in a segregated state, her efforts were initially unsuccessful. Instead, West taught mathematics in Martinsville, Virginia, while pursing graduate work. In 1955, she received a master’s in mathematics from her alma mater. She continued to apply to government jobs and received her first offer from the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956, where she worked until retirement in 1998.
At Dahlgren, West was the second Black woman hired and the fourth Black employee. Another Black mathematician on base, Ira V. West, became Gladys Brown’s husband in 1957; they recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. West and her husband raised three children, took part in social life on the base, and attended a local Baptist church. They maintained their jobs, family, and social commitments by employing a full-time housekeeper.
After some training in computer programming, West’s work at Dahlgren began with the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator (NORC). In 1962 she helped program NORC for Project 29V, which established the motion of the planet Pluto relative to Neptune, through 5 billion arithmetic calculations and 100 hours of computer calculation. In 1964 the Navy recognized Project 29V with a merit award. After that, West focused on calculations for satellite orbits.
In 1978, West was project manager for SEASAT, the first earth-orbiting satellite designed for remote sensing of the Earth’s oceans; her group used it to measure ocean depths. This project led to the GEOSAT satellite, which used SEASAT and other data to create highly accurate computer simulations of the earth’s surface. In 1986, she published a guide outlining the use of GEOSAT data for calculating geoid heights. West’s work made the accuracy of today’s GPS possible. Colleagues noted her mathematical brilliance particularly with algorithms, which created efficiencies that transformed calculation timetables.
West continued her education throughout her career at Dahlgren, earning a second master’s degree in public administration in 1973 from the University of Oklahoma. After retirement and at 70 years old, West completed her PhD in public administration through the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
On February 26, 2018, the Virginia Senate passed a joint resolution formally commending “Gladys West for her trailblazing career in mathematics and vital contributions to modern technology.” On December 6, 2018, the Air Force inducted West into the Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame. West continues to speak to elementary students about the importance of studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Who was Gregory Robinson?
Program Director of the James Webb Space Telescope project at NASA, Gregory Robinson, was a part of the historical event that took place on Christmas Day of 2021. Upon an Ariane 5 rocket at the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, the $10 billion telescope was launched into space. The hexagonally-shaped telescope, consisting of multiple foldable mirrors was a collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope will be able to peer into galaxies up to 13 billion light years from Earth.
Before being appointed the Webb Telescope Program Director, Gregory Robinson was the son of tobacco sharecroppers in Danville, Virginia. Robinson attended racially segregated schools until 1970, when integration was enforced in Danville. Despite the lacking resources and opportunities provided by the schools he attended, Robinson’s teachers and church members ensured that him and his peers were set on obtaining an education. Fortunately for Robinson, education after his high school graduation from Dan River High in 1978 was made possible through a full-ride scholarship to Virginia Union University where he earned a degree in mathematics. Subsequently, he transferred to Howard University, and earned another bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Robinson continued his education at Averett College in his hometown of Danville for his MBA. Additionally, he attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University as a Senior Executive Fellow.
Became a full time...
Gregory Robinson became a full-time employee at NASA in 1989, where he spent the first eleven years occupying various leadership positions at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In 1999 he was reassigned to NASA headquarters and served as Deputy Center Director at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, NASA’s Deputy Chief Engineer, and acting National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service Deputy Assistant Administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2018, he was appointed as the Program Director of the James Webb Space Telescope project. His role in the project consisted of enhancing testing efficiency to ensure a successful mission.
On January 24th of 2022, JWST successfully reached the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2) and has subsequently deployed its primary and secondary mirror segments. The deployment of the mirrors has allowed engineers to embark on the three-month journey of orientating the telescope in such a way that it will accomplish precision to the nearest nanometer. On February 11th, 2022, the telescope witnessed its first star, delivering triumph as the process of alignment continues.
Gregory Robinson played a significant role in the development of the most powerful telescope in humankind. His presence at the forefront of this event is an inspiration for next generation scientists. Robinson was honored with the Roy L. Clay Sr Technology Pinnacle Award in February of 2022.
Who was Hannibal Caesar Carter?
Hannibal Caesar Carter, the second African American to serve as Secretary of State in Mississippi, was born on February 11, 1835, in New Albany, Indiana. Though he spent his early childhood in Toronto, Canada, Carter received a common school education in New Albany. When he was old enough to work, Carter learned the barber trade and was later trained as a tobacconist.
Despite restrictions on African American movement, Carter managed to cross state lines to be among the first African Americans who volunteered to serve in a combat unit during the U.S. Civil War. He joined the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black regiment formed in New Orleans just before the Civil War began. It is unclear as to why he joined the Guard. Its stated purpose was originally to protect the interests of the citizens of New Orleans. When Fort Sumter fell and the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard became a unit in the Army of the Confederate States of America (CSA). After the war began Carter rose to the rank of captain and thus became one of the few black officers in the Confederate Army.
By early 1862, Union forces occupied New Orleans and southern Louisiana and on September 27 of that year, Union General Benjamin Butler accepted many members of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard into the Union Army. They became known as the Corps d’ Afrique 1st Louisiana Native Guard. Carter continued to serve and may have participated in the Battle of Port Hudson on May 27, 1863, where the Corps d’ Afrique participated in the battle that gave the United States control of the Mississippi River.
Once the Civil War ended Carter like many former officers of the Corps d’ Afrique became a leader in the Republican Party. He first represented Warren County as a Republican in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1872 to 1873. He later served again, representing Warren County from 1876 to 1877. Carter was first appointed Secretary of State on September 1, 1873, and served until October 20, 1873, having been appointed after Hiram R. Revels, who was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate, resigned. The second time he was appointed Secretary of State, he served from November 13, 1873, to January 4, 1874. In later years, Carter changed his party affiliation to Democrat.
In 1881, after Reconstruction ended and Carter no longer had the opportunity to serve in office, he moved to Chicago, Illinois where he lived for the next twenty years. In the late 1880s he helped establish the Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association to encourage Southern African Americans to move west to Oklahoma Territory. Hannibal Caesar Carter died at his home in Chicago on June 1, 1904, at the age of 69.
First Black NBA Players!
The first African American players in the National Basketball Association in the 20th Century all came into the League in 1950. They were Earl Francis Lloyd (Syracuse Nationals), Charles Henry Cooper (Boston Celtics), and Nathaniel Clifton (New York Knicks) They began their academic training at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Lloyd, 6′ 6″ was born on April 3, 1928, in Alexandria, Virginia and graduated from Parker-Gray High School in Alexandria in 1946. He then enrolled in West Virginia State University in 1946 and while an All–American player he received his Bachelor of Science degree in health & physical education in 1950. The 21-year-old was then drafted in the ninth round and on October 31, 1950, he became the first Black athlete to play in the NBA with the Washington Capitols. Lloyd also played for nine seasons with the Syracuse Nationals (who later became the Philadelphia 76ers). In 1970, Lloyd became the first full-time African American head coach in the league when he coached the Detroit Pistons for a year.
Cooper, 6’ 5,” was born on September 29, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh he also enrolled in West Virginia State University in 1944. However, he transferred to Duquesne University in 1946, and in 1950 he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. On April 25, 1950, he became the second African American drafted into the NBA when the Boston Celtics chose him as the 14th overall pick. Cooper made his NBA debut on November 1, 1950, one day after Lloyd, against the Fort Wayne Pistons. He played four years with the Celtics, then was traded to the Milwaukee Hawks. He ended his career with the Ft. Wayne Pistons. Afterward, he earned a Master of Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 1960.
Nathaniel Clifton (nasljerseys.com)
Nathaniel Clifton, 6’ 8,” was born Clifton Nathaniel on October 13, 1922, in England, Arkansas, and reared in Chicago, Illinois, from age eight. He reversed his name during his senior year at DuSable High School in Chicago, graduating in 1940. From 1942 to 1943, he was a student at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana and played only one season in college. In 1948 Clifton signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. Clifton became the third African American player to sign an NBA contract and made his New York Knicks debut on November 4, 1950, three days after Cooper. At age 34, Clifton was the oldest player in NBA history to be named a first-time All-Star. In 1958, Clifton was traded to the Detroit Pistons, and a year later, in 1959, he left the team. He played for a startup pro team, the Harlem Magicians, and then spent several seasons with the still-popular Globetrotters and another s