Black History Month Remix
History has been built by a wide set of diverse people. People who have looked like almost every single person on this planet. People who could have served as role models and inspirational figures for almost everyone on this planet.
Intelligence, drive, motivation, bravery, diligence, attention to detail, curiosity, creativity. All of these know, and have known, no racial bounds. History has proven this (time and time again). The stories of the past are important in comforting us, educating us, informing us, motivating us.
There is a real value to seeing yourself in history. If people who you identify with have gotten to where you want to be, why would you doubt that you could get there as well?
This is why the Black History I was taught in school was a problem for me.
I remember being a kid. Black History month would come along. It always felt pretty half-hearted at my schools. If we did talk about anybody, it was almost always the same people. Your classics, you know them: “George Washington Carver invented the peanut,” “Harriet Tubman freed the slaves,” “Madam C J Walker made hair products for black women,” “Martin Luther King Jr marched on Washington.”
As a kid, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew I didn’t like it. If in the one month that we focused on the successes of black people throughout all of America’s history, we could only come up with the same bundle of people and many of them had to do with freeing slaves, black people’s own civil rights, or creating products specifically for other black people, that just felt wrong. It felt like picking for scraps (no offense to the legacy of any of the people mentioned above), and I knew that couldn’t be true, but I just sort of threw Black History month into the basket of things that I didn’t think much about and moved along*.
Over the past few years, I have become more and more interested in uncovering the history of the forgotten, underreported, unknown. I think there is so much power and beauty in seeing yourself represented in history and in your field, and since there were already amazing people of all kinds being brilliant and innovative, it is just a matter of digging up these buried stories.
This Black History month, I had a strong motivation to do digging of my own. Do a remix, if you will, of the Black History month I had as a kid. To that end, I found 28 different amazing and talented African Americans from history (1 for each day of the month). Cutting it down to 28 was even a problem. I broke them up into two parts.
My main hope is to contribute to a more complete retelling of history. A broader, more inclusive, more realistic version of history, that can inspire others around by letting them know that they aren’t the first and they won’t be the last.
I have tried to include a wide range of backgrounds and professions, from a wide range of years. Hopefully you see yourself or your friends in one of these people, get excited by the history of one of these people, and feel happy and proud to discover a group of great and impressive minds and talents.
Paul R. Williams (1894–1980) more info
Paul R. Williams was a highly esteemed architect who had a great deal of influence on the architectural makeup of Southern California. Williams has also been called the “architect to the stars,” because he designed houses for many celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant.
He became a certified architect in 1915, studied architectural engineering at the University of Southern California, and gained a license to practice architecture in California in 1921. In 1923, he became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects.
In an over five-decade long career, Williams built more than 3,000 buildings, mostly in Southern California, including the Saks Fifth Avenue building in Beverly Hills, and the iconic Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport, which Williams co-designed.
Computing: Mathematician, Computer Engineer, Rocket Scientist
Annie Easley (1933–2011) more info
Annie Easley was a mathematician and computer scientist at NASA (at the time NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory).
A trained mathematician, Easley began her work at NASA as one of the “human computers,” performing calculations for researchers.
As this role became displaced by computers, Easley quickly became a talented programmer, learning languages like FORTRAN and SOAP to develop programs for the Centaur rocket. Programs which served as the technological foundations for the space shuttle launches and subsequent satellite launches.
Melba Liston’s mother bought her a trombone when she was 7 and by the time she was 8, she was already playing solos on local radio. At 16, she joined the pit band at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles.
In 1943, she joined a big band formed by Gerald Wilson and traveled around the country with him. She was the first female trombonist to play in a big band at the time and even led a big band during her career.
Liston achieved substantial success as both a performer and a composer, playing with some of the biggest names in jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and Duke Ellington, and producing works for the likes of Billy Holiday and Diana Ross.
Captain Charles Young (1864–1922) more info
Captain Charles Young was the first black U.S. national park superintendent, the first black man to rise to the rank of colonel, the highest ranking black officer in the Regular Army until his death, and the third African-American graduate of West Point.
One of Young’s many accomplishments was his work as the manager of the Sequoia National Park in northern California. Young and his troops developed roads and trails that helped to dramatically increase park accessibility and attendance, including finally providing a viable wagon path to the Giant Forest, which houses the world’s largest trees. Young’s team accomplished more for the park’s roads in one summer than had been done in the previous three.
Invention: First Refrigerated Transport System
Frederick Jones (1893–1961) more info
Frederick Jones was a largely self educated inventor who created the first refrigerated transport system, a portable refrigeration unit. Because of Jones, it became possible to transport blood and food long distances to the military during WWII.
Jones partnered with entrepreneur Joseph Numero and created the U.S. Thermo Control Company which earned the duo $3 million by 1949.
A life-long inventor, Jones didn’t begin or end with portable refrigeration units. Throughout the course of his life, he amassed over 60 patents. In 1944, he was elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and in 1991 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously by President George H.W. Bush.
Marjorie Lee Browne (1914–1979) more info
Marjorie Lee Browne was a math maven. She earned a Bachelors in mathematics in 1949 from Howard University, a Masters in mathematics from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and went on to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1949, becoming only the third African American woman at the time to earn a Ph.D in this field.
Browne was a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Fellow at UCLA, where she studied computing and numerical analysis. She also held a fellowship at Columbia University where she studied differential topology.
She won a $60,000 grant from IBM for North Carolina Central University, which she used to set up a digital computer center at the university, one of the first of its kind at a minority institution.
Browne was one of the first African American women to serve on the advisory council for the NSF.
Naomi Sims (1948–2009) more info
Naomi Sims is widely considered to be the first African American supermodel and was one of the first models ever signed to Wilhemina, one of the oldest and most well known model management companies in the world.
Like many models, Sims was ridiculed at a young age for her shape, being already 5' 10" at 13. She took an interest in fashion and modeling and won a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
She originally attempted to go through modeling agencies, but was met with much racial prejudice and agencies turning her down because of her color. Sims decided to go directly to photographers and started booking some magazine covers.
It was after she connected with Wilhemina Cooper, a former model who started her own agency, that Sims really burst into the national, and then international stage, becoming one of the first successful black models. She was highly desired by top designers and graced the cover of numerous, prestigious magazines, including Life, where she was the first African American model to be featured on its cover.
Mark Dean (1957-) more info
Mark Dean is an inventor, computer engineer, and computer scientist who amongst his many accomplishments, led the design team for the 1GHz computer processor chip, developed the ISA bus, and holds 3 of the 9 original IBM patents for the personal computer which the company released in 1981.
After earning his BS, MS, and Ph.D in Electrical Engineering, Dean soon joined IBM. He quickly rose in rank at the company and because of his substantial accomplishments with the company, became the first African American to become an IBM fellow, the highest technical level at the company. In addition to his many innovations within the organization, he also held roles as the CTO of IBM Middle East Africa and as an IBM Vice President.
In 1997, Dean was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) more info
Shirley Chisolm was a woman of many firsts in American politics.
In 1969, Chisolm became the first African American congresswoman. She served 7 terms representing New York’s 12th Congressional District, where one of her successes was getting unemployment benefits for domestic workers. Chisolm was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.
In 1972, Chisolm became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and the first major African American candidate to run for the presidential nomination of a major party.
She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015.
Floyd Norman (1935-) more info
Floyd Norman is a prolific animator, comic book artist, and writer who, over the past decades, has written, animated, and storyboarded some of the most popular titles from Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Pixar.
Norman was hired at Disney in 1956, making him the first African American artist employed by the company. He was a storyboard artist and animator for Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, and 101 Dalmatians, though often uncredited.
During his writing position on The Jungle Book, he began working directly with Walt Disney. After Disney’s death, Norman left the company and co-founded Vignette Film with colleagues, one of the first film companies which produced content on black history.
After Vignette Films, Norman would go on to work for Hanna-Barbera, producing dozens of TV shows, and then Pixar. During his career, he has worked as a storyboard artist, story director, and/or layout artist for a number of well know television shows and movies including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.
In 2007, Norman received the Disney Legends Award.
Shirley Jackson (1946-) more info
Shirley Jackson is a physicist, inventor, and currently the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In addition to her many accomplishments, Jackson’s research at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1970s and 1980s paved the way for future inventions of portable fax, caller ID, and caller waiting.
Jackson earned a Ph.D in nuclear physics from MIT in 1973, making her the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D at MIT and the second African American in the US to earn a Ph.D in physics.
She completed post doctoral research in subatomic particles in the 1970s and then joined AT&T Bell Laboratories in their Theoretical Physics Research Department. There she conducted substantial research in condensed matter and semiconductor theory which resultantly helped advanced the field of telecommunications. She published over 100 papers.
In 1995, she was appointed Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Bill Clinton, the first woman and first African American to receive this appointment.
In 1999, Jackson became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the first woman and first African American to do so.
Jerry Lawson (1940–2011) more info
Jerry Lawson was an engineer and inventor who gave us the video game cartridge and the first video game system with interchangeable games.
Lawson had an early interest in and aptitude for electronics.
In 1970, he joined Fairchild Semiconductor, first as an application engineering consultant, then as the Chief Hardware Engineer, and then as the director of engineering and marketing. As Director, Lawson helped create the Fairchild Channel F in 1976, a home gaming system, which allowed users to play a variety of games from their home using one device. This system helped lead the way for Atari, Nintendo, XBox, and Playstation.
Lawson was also a member of the famous Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer adopters and hobbyists, many of whom became industry greats, such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Invention: Three Signal Traffic Light, Gas Masks, Chemical Relaxer
Garrett Morgan (1877–1963) more info
Born in Reconstruction era Kentucky, Garret Morgan only achieved a sixth grade education, but he had an inventive and entrepreneurial spirit which led him to a prolific career as an inventor.
In the 1890s and 1900s, Morgan worked repairing sewing machines to make money. It was during this time that Morgan inadvertently created a chemical hair relaxer while attempting to create a chemical solution which would reduce sewing needle scorching on wool material. He went on to commercialize the relaxer, making enough money to leave the sewing machine business for new inventive pursuits.
Along the way, Morgan created a wide range of inventions, including a respiratory device which would serve as the foundation for WWI gas masks and the 3 way traffic signal.
He developed his improved traffic light in 1923, which added a third signal to indicate to drivers that they should get ready to stop. He patented this invention in the US, Britain, and Canada, eventually selling the rights to General Electric for $40,000.
Matthew Henson (1866–1955) more info
Matthew Henson was an Arctic explorer who, along with famed explorer Robert Peary, was considered to have discovered the Arctic Pole in 1909.
Henson first joined Peary’s expedition in 1890 as Peary’s valet, after Peary had been impressed by Henson’s seamanship. They spent 7 years in the Arctic and crossed over 9,000 miles on dogsled. It is said that Henson was well liked by the Greenland Inuit and Canadian Inuit locals because of his hunting and sled driving skills and his ability to speak their languages.
On May 8, 1900, Peary and Henson passed the furthest point north ever previously reached by explorers. For this achievement, President Roosevelt presented Peary with the Hubbard Medal in 1906. Henson would eventually receive a Hubbard Medal as well, posthumously, in 2000.
There is ongoing and significant debate, but it is believed that Peary and Henson reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909 and became one of the first, and possibly the first, people to do so.
Stay tuned for PART TWO (which will be posted soon)
* I’m first generation Nigerian American, so I know it’s a *whole* lot easier for me to say that I could look past the great shortcomings of my Black History Month education, and a privilege as well.
(*Note: None of the photos are my own.*)