Black history is filled with people who innovated, educated, inspired, advocated and challenged. There are so many achievements (often despite significant oppression or personal danger) that have been the forerunners of shaping progress in the United States. Black history and those who created glorious moments of change have often gone unnoticed or spoken of all too quietly.
History is not an irrelevant, remote point in time; it’s a common thread that connects us all to what came before while also imagining what could be. All those who shaped what we take for granted today were the innovators of our present. They didn’t hope for a future that was bigger and brighter, they helped create it. Here are 5 innovators you need to know about …
Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859), an abolitionist and businessman, is widely believed to be the first African American to receive a patent. Born a free man, he worked in tailoring before eventually owning his own clothing store which offered garment cleaning services. After discovering that some fabrics were not easily cleaned using the established methods of the time, Jennings experimented with various combinations of products and approaches until he devised a new technique called ‘dry-scouring’ that became what we know today as dry cleaning. It was for this innovation in 1821 that he secured the first-ever patent to be held by an African American. By maintaining the rights to his invention, he was able to profit from it and became independently wealthy — he used his money to buy the rest of his family out of enslavement.
Then in 1827, alongside other Black business leaders, Jennings helped establish America’s first Black-owned, Black-operated newspaper (the Freedom Journal) that aimed to counter racist commentary within mainstream media. He went on to fund and champion a movement to end segregation on public transit in his native New York City after his daughter, Elizabeth won a discrimination case in 1855 for being thrown off a ‘Whites only’ NYC streetcar. Just ten years after this event, and due in no small part to the activism of Jennings and his daughter, all NYC public transit was desegregated. You can find out more about Thomas L. Jennings here.
Garrett Morgan (1877-1963), a keen inventor and businessman who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, accumulated enough personal finance after working for 12 years as a sewing-machine repairman to set up his own sewing repair shop. After several years of hard work, he ended up adding a tailoring business, a newspaper and a personal grooming company to his portfolio. However, his most significant achievement was his groundbreaking invention of the gas mask. Enabling the ability to breathe in the presence of toxins and very little oxygen, his 1914-patented ‘safety hood’ received glowing praise nationally from fire departments and the U.S. Navy and Army (who utilized them during World War I and II) — this was despite encountering intense racism that would sometimes see him having to employ White actors to demonstrate his mask at selling/trade events.
In 1916 he was instrumental in saving the lives of two Cleveland Water workers who became trapped under Lake Erie after a gas explosion disaster that claimed the lives of 21 men. After several rescue attempts that were unsuccessful because of the smoke and toxic gases, a Cleveland police officer remembered attending a demonstration of Morgan’s safety hood and suggested he be called in to help. Morgan left his home immediately with Frank (his brother), a neighbour and some of his prized gas masks. He wasted no time and went into the collapsed tunnels with his brother and fellow rescuers Thomas Castelberry and Thomas Clancy. With all of them wearing gas masks they were able to breathe safely and see where they were going. As a result, they located and pulled to safety the two remaining survivors — thus proving beyond doubt that his invention worked.
Despite being hailed a hero, Morgan was excluded from the official honours given to others involved in the rescue effort. Shamefully, his recognition only came posthumously in 1991. You can find out more about Garrett Morgan’s life and inventions here (he also invented the forerunner to our modern-day traffic lights).
Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961), defied the intersection of gender and race inequality by opening her own school in 1909 (the National Training School for Women and Girls) to provide both vocational and academic instruction to Black women in Washington, D.C. As was common at the time, Black women had limited choice in careers (often restricted to domestic work) and education was discouraged. Burroughs believed that solid training in domestic science, business, barbering, sewing, shoe repair and music, etc would create better job opportunities and provide a way to establish personal prosperity both within, and outside of traditional female roles.
As an activist for civil and gender rights, at a time when the two ideologies were in their infancy, she envisioned her school as a place that heralded and highlighted Black women’s capabilities, accomplishments and self-reliance. This desire for independence was reflected in her decision not to rely on wealthy White donors to build her school. Burroughs instead, despite naysayers, managed to secure funding via small, grassroots donations from Black women and children within the community. You can learn more about Nannie Helen Burroughs and her remarkable lifelong work here.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was an accomplished guitarist, singer, songwriter and recording artist who fused jazz, blues and gospel music in what was to become the inspirational beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. Her music and style preceded the likes of BB King, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and is widely considered to be the creator of this genre of music. At the age of four, Tharpe started playing the guitar and became so proficient by the age of six that she joined her mother travelling around the South as part of an evangelical gospel troupe.
In 1938, Tharpe released a small number of songs through Decca Records that were well received and highly acclaimed. It was extremely rare for women to be guitarists at this time, even more so that a Black woman would be at the forefront of a popular music shift that would go on to inspire generations of rock ‘n’ roll artists. Her success came at a time when racism and segregation meant that opportunities were blocked because of her race and gender. But she didn’t let things like being denied entry into hotels and restaurants while she was on tour to stop her from sharing her trendsetting talent. Tharpe shredded a guitar and sang like no one had heard before, and even though she continued to release and perform successful and well-celebrated music for decades, her importance and status as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer went largely overlooked. You can find out more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and music here.
Dr Patricia Bath (1942-2019) was a doctor, laser scientist and inventor. As a trailblazing expert within ophthalmology, she experienced some incredible firsts in this field and ended up inventing something that would go on to save the eyesight of many people worldwide. Born in Harlem, NYC her academic pursuits were nurtured by her parents and it was during this time that she showed an early aptitude for science. Finishing high school in just two years, Bath went on to complete a medical degree at Howard University, then an internship at Harlem Hospital.
Next came the pursuit of a fellowship at Columbia University where she became the first-ever Black American to complete an ophthalmology residency in 1973. By 1976 Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (still at work today) after she discovered during her studies that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer blindness compared to other groups. In 1988 she was the first Black female doctor to secure a medical patent for her Laserphaco Probe invention — a new device and technique for cataract surgery. Her device was so successful it even restored the sight of a woman in North Africa who had been blind for 30 years. You can find out more about Dr Patricia Bath’s life and invention here.
This was just a quick introduction and so much more could be shared about these incredible innovators. I encourage you to follow the links provided throughout this article and pursue your own research if any of them are new to you. There is so much to learn, honour, celebrate and commemorate during Black History Month, this is just a start …
Digital Black History Events – Smithsonian Magazine (several events available throughout February that are admission free but may require registration)
The 2021 Black History Month Virtual Festival – ASALH (many free events available and open to the public)
Contact the Department of Education (US) or find your Representatives to call for Black History to be taught nationwide at all educational levels as an evidence-based, robust, nuanced and well-resourced year-round core curriculum subject.