On November 20, 1923, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent No. 1,475,074 to 46-year-old inventor and newspaperman Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal, it was an important innovation nonetheless: By having a third position besides just “Stop” and “Go,” it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals had.
As the story goes, when Morgan witnessed an especially spectacular accident when he had the idea that if he designed an automated signal with an interim “warning” position—the ancestor of today’s yellow light—drivers would have time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered it. Before this, "Stop" and "Go" were operated manually and were open to human error.
To avoid racist resistance to his product, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he wore the hood during presentations to potential buyers. Morgan had also previously invented a revamped sewing machine, a hair straightener for African Americans, and a "safety hood" for miners and firefighters that would become the precursor of gas masks used during WWI.
At just six years old, Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana on November 14, 1960.
Bridges' father was initially reluctant, but her mother felt strongly that the move was needed not only to give her own daughter a better education, but to "take this step forward [...] for all African-American children". Because racial tensions were running high and this was such a leap forward in the desegregation movement, Ruby was escorted to school everyday by federal marshals to ensure her safety. In 1964, Norman Rockwell made Ruby and her escorts the subject of his painting "The Problem We All Live With."
Ernest Everett Just was a pioneering African-American biologist, academic and science writer. His primary legacy is his recognition of the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. In his work within marine biology, cytology and parthenogenesis, he advocated the study of whole cells under normal conditions, rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting.
Just's mother wanted him to become a teacher and as she believed that schools for blacks in the south were inferior, she sent him to a college-preparatory high school in New Hampshire. He completed his four-year program in just three years and graduated with the highest grades in his class. He then enrolled in Dartmouth College and it was while he was there that he developed an interest in biology after learning about fertilization and egg development. His studies continued at the University of Chicago where he became regarded as "a genius in the design of experiments" and he would later become one of only a handful of black students to receive a doctoral degree, a feat for that time.
Ernest eventually did become a teacher of Biology and authored two books on his specialties of eggs and cells.
Dorothy Height is recognized as one of the most influential women in the modern civil rights movement.Height began her efforts as a civil rights activist at the age of twenty-five when she joined the National Council of Negro Women, were she would serve for 40 years as its president. Throughout her life, she fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women. She is credited with being the first person in the Civil Rights movement to view the problems of equality for women and equality for African Americans as a whole, merging issues that had been historically separate. She was known as being an effective mediator between white women and black women as they held discussions on how they were going to mobilize their efforts to gain equality.
Height was also a chief organizer of the famous March on Washington in 1963, which was the largest gathering for civil rights at that time. The event focused on employment discrimination and civil rights abuses, not just for African-Americans and women, but also for Latinos and other marginalized populations.She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 for her civil rights activism.
In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender weekly newspaper, which would later give rise to Black publications today, such as Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise, and Upscale. As well, Abbott and his newspaper played an integral part in encouraging African Americans to migrate from the South for better economic opportunities.
As an African American news publisher, Abbott’s mission was not only to print news stories, he had an even bigger mission that included:1. Destroying American race prejudice
2. The opening up of all trade unions to Black as well as White people.
3. Having representation in the President's Cabinet
4. Being eligible for jobs such as Engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and all jobs in government.
5. Having representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United States
6. Making sure government schools were open to all American citizens
7. Being eligible for jobs in elevated and motor bus lines throughout America
8. Federal legislation to abolish lynching.
9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens.
Bessie Coleman was was the first African-American woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot license. She earned her pilot license on June 15, 1921, and was the first black person to earn an international pilot's license.
Coleman worked in the cotton fields at a young age while also studying in a small, segregated school. Coleman developed an early interest in flying while working in a barbershop, where she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I. However, African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight training opportunities in the United States, so she saved and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.
She later became a high-profile pilot in dangerous air shows in the United States. She was popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie, and hoped to start a school for African-American fliers. However, Bessie died in a plane crash in 1926 at the age of 34.
Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. She published her first poem at 13 years old and had written over 75 by the time she was 16. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. In her early years, she received commendations on her poetic work and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes.
She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen, a book of poetry focused on the life and experiences of a young Black girl growing into womanhood in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. This made her the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize.
Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honors. A lifelong resident of Chicago, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position she held until her death 32 years later. She was also named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for the 1985–86 term. In 1976, she became the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. was a United States Army officer. In 1940, he became the first African-American to rise to the rank of brigadier general. Davis became commanding general of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, in January 1941. According to historian Russell Weigley, his career is significant as an indicator of a small forward movement for blacks in the American army in the World War II era.
At 16 years old, Jane Bolin enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she was one of only two black freshmen. Despite warnings from her career adviser due to her race and gender, Jane enrolled at Yale Law School where she was the only black student, and one of only three women. She became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale in 1931 and to pass the New York state bar examination, which she did in 1932.
On July 22, 1939, at the New York World's Fair, Mayor of New York City Fiorello La Guardia appointed 31-year-old Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court. She was the first black woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. and was the only black female judge in the country for over 20 years.
Jane was also an activist for children's rights and education. She was a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women and served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Child Welfare League.
Joe Louis Clark gained public attention in the 1980s for his unconventional and controversial disciplinary measures as the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. Eastside High was in the inner city and was at risk of being taken over by the state government unless students improved their test scores on the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test.
Clark, who often carried a bullhorn or baseball bat, expelled over 300 students who were frequently tardy or absent from school, sold or used drugs in school, or caused trouble in school. However, these practices did result in higher average test scores for Eastside High during the 1980s.
Joe was the subject of the 1989 film "Lean on Me," portrayed as a former social activist by actor Morgan Freeman.
Mae Carol Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Jemison joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1987 and was selected to serve for the STS-47 mission, during which she orbited the Earth for nearly eight days on September 12–20, 1992.
Jemison graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African-American studies. She earned her medical degree from Cornell University. Jemison was a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone from 1983 until 1985 and worked as a general practitioner.
Jemison left NASA in 1993 and founded a technology research company. She later formed a non-profit educational foundation and through the foundation is the principal of the 100 Year Starship project funded by DARPA.
Mae has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.
Kelly Miller, born in 1863 to a former slave and a freed black man, was an American mathematician, sociologist, essayist, newspaper columnist, author, and an important figure in the intellectual life of black America for close to half a century. Known as "the Bard of the Potomac." Miller, despite his humble beginnings, was offered a scholarship to Howard University and finished the preparatory department's three-year curriculum in Latin and Greek, then mathematics, in two years. After being appointed as a professor at the college, he would later go on to graduate from its School of Law in 1903.
Miller was a participant in the March 5, 1897 meeting which led to the founding of the American Negro Academy, led by Alexander Crummell. Until the organization was discontinued in 1928, Miller remained one of the most active members of this first major African American learned society, refuting racist scholarship, promoting black claims to individual, social, and political equality, and publishing early histories and sociological studies of African American life.
Miller gained his well-known national importance from his involvement in another movement led by W. E. B. Du Bois. He showed intellectual leadership during the conflict between the "accommodations" of Booker T. Washington and the "radicalism" of the growing civil rights.
On African-American education policy, Miller sought a neither a radical nor conservative way and proposed a comprehensive education system that would provide for "symmetrical development" of African-American citizens by offering both vocational and intellectual instruction.
Alice Coachman is known for winning the Olympic gold medal in the high jump at the 1948 games in London. She was the first African-American to do so, and was also the only female American athlete to win a medal of any kind at these Olympics.
Alice was born in 1923 in Albany. Her rise to fame did not start easily. In the Southern States' schools, young colored athletes could not use any of the training facilities, or compete in any of the organized sports events due to the strict segregation that was enforced at the time.
Alice struggled to develop her athletics skills, as there was also opposition to women in sport at the time, never mind African American women. She had to make do with training anywhere she could. She would run barefoot in fields and dirt roads close to her home to practice her sprinting. She would improvise with homemade equipment to practice the high jump. She would jump over tied rags, ropes, and sticks for hours at a time to improving her jumping.
However, in 1948, Alice qualified for the US Olympic team with a high jump of 5 feet 4 inches. This leap broke the existing16-year-old record by ¾ inch.
On her return to the US, Coachman was acclaimed as a returning hero. A victory parade was held in her honor, as well as being a guest of honor at a banquet held by her sorority at Albany State College. At the age of 25 and still in great physical shape, Alice took the decision--a huge surprise to many--to quit athletics. She did, however, continue coaching many women athletes.
Barack Obama is an American politician and attorney who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017. Obama was the first African-American president of the United States. He previously served as a U.S. senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008 and as an Illinois state senator from 1997 to 2004.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. In 1988, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he was the first black person to be president of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, he became a civil rights attorney and an academic, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.
Turning to elective politics, he represented the 13th district from 1997 until 2004 in the Illinois Senate, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, which he won by a landslide. At this point, he started to gain serious attention and gave a well-received July Democratic National Convention keynote address.
In 2008, he was nominated by the Democratic Party for president a year after his presidential campaign began, and after a close primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama was elected over Republican nominee John McCain and was inaugurated alongside his running mate, Joe Biden, on January 20, 2009. Nine months later, he was named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland complaining of vaginal bleeding. A biopsy would reveal that the mother of five had cervical cancer. At the time, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that treated African-Americans.
Without her knowledge, a sample of both her cancer cells and her healthy cells retrieved during the biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey's nearby tissue lab. Dr. Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died. However, Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks' cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.
This lead to the formation of the "HeLa" cell line, which is still used today. Henrietta's cells allow vital medical research to be done without experimenting on--and potentially harming--living human subjects. The cells are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells and have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, and to study the human genome. They were also used to learn more about how viruses work and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.
Although Mrs. Lacks ultimately passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, her cells continue to impact the world.
Nathan Hare is an American sociologist, activist, academic, and psychologist. In 1968, he was the first person hired to coordinate a black studies program in the United States, which he set up at San Francisco State University. He also coined the term "ethnic studies" (now called "minority studies").
After being let go as chair of the Black Studies program at San Francisco State in November 1969 Hare and Robert Chrisman both chipped in $300 and co-founded the journal, "The Black Scholar: A Journal of Black Studies and Research," of which Nathan Hare was founding publisher from 1969-75. They worked in a rent-free room in the Graphic Arts building of Nathan's former campus. "The Black Scholar" was featured in Newsweek under an article entitled, "From the Ebony Tower." The New York Times would soon call it "the most important journal devoted to black issues since 'The Crisis,'" the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
After earning his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Hare set up a private practice in Oakland and San Francisco. Together with his wife, Julia Hare, he founded the Black Think Tank and for several years published a periodical, "Black Male/Female Relationships."
Inez Beverly Prosser earned a PhD in psychology in 1933, the first such degree earned by an African-American woman.
Prosser had a lifelong passion for education and an understanding of the power it offered for changing lives. Prosser began her college work at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college northwest of Houston. With a two-year certificate, she began teaching in Austin, Texas, in 1913, first at a black elementary school and then a high school. She finished her bachelor's degree at Samuel Huston College in Austin in 1926. Because of segregated schools, Prosser was forced to leave Texas for graduate work. She completed her master's degree at the University of Colorado and then her doctorate in psychology at the University of Cincinnati in 1933.
Although she would pass away just a year after earning this degree, Inez was instrumental in assisting many black students in obtaining funds for college and for graduate studies. The magnitude of her accomplishment in obtaining her PhD was recognized by her appearance on the cover of the magazine "The Crisis in August" 1933, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Alexander Lucius Twilight was an American educator, minister, and politician. Born to an interracial couple, he is the first African-American man known to have earned a bachelor's degree from an American college or university, graduating from Middlebury College in 1823. He was ordained as a Congregational minister and worked in education and ministry all his career. In 1829 Twilight became principal of the Orleans County Grammar School. There he designed and built Athenian Hall, the first granite public building in the state of Vermont. In 1836 he was the first African American elected as a state legislator, serving in the Vermont House of Representatives; he was also the only African American ever elected to a state legislature before the Civil War.
Ella Josephine Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades. In New York City and the South, she worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. Her biggest accomplishment was mentoring many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses, whom she first mentored as leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Baker has been called "one of the most important American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement." She is known for her critiques not only of racism within American culture, but also of sexism within the civil rights movement.
As a child, Baker grew up with little influence besides her grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth "Bet" Ross, who would tell her granddaughter stories about slavery and leaving the South to escape its oppressive society. Therefore, at an early age, Baker gained a sense of social injustice, as she listened to her grandmother's horror stories of life as an enslaved person.
Baker criticized professionalized, charismatic leadership; she promoted grassroots organizing, radical democracy, and the ability of the oppressed to understand their worlds and advocate for themselves. She realized this vision most fully in the 1960s as the primary advisor and strategist of the SNCC. She was also a national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL) in its early days. Furthermore, she joined the NAACP and was named director of branches in 1943, becoming the organization's highest-ranking woman.
John Wesley Gilbert was an educator, a missionary, and the first African American archaeologist. He was also the first graduate of Paine College, and the first African American to receive a master’s degree from Brown University.
While attending Brown University, Gilbert received a scholarship to attend the American School of Classics, in Athens, Greece. He was the first African American to attend the school and participated in archaeological fieldwork during his year of attendance. During one of those excavations, Gilbert found walls, gates, and pillars that lead to the discovery of the ancient Greek city of Eretria. Due to his discoveries, he created the first map of the area. When Gilbert returned to Brown in 1891, he further focused his studies on archaeology and became the first African American to receive an advanced degree from the institution, earning his master’s degree in Archaeology in 1891.
Professor Gilbert returned to Augusta, Georgia, and began teaching Greek, Latin, English, French, German, and Hebrew at Paine College, in the fall of 1891. He was the first African American instructor at the school.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was an American physician, nurse and author. She decided to study nursing after the death of her 7-year-old stepson and spent 1855-1864 in practice. After studying at the New England Female Medical College, in 1864 she became the first African-American woman to become a doctor of medicine in the United States. In 1883, Dr. Crumpler also one of the first female physician authors in the nineteenth century when she published A Book of Medical Discourses. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focuses on maternal and pediatric medical care and was among the first publications written by an African American about medicine.
What makes her story even more astonishing is that Dr. Crumpler graduated from medical college at a time when very few African Americans were allowed to attend medical college or publish books. Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily serving poor women and children.
Unfortunately, she was subject to intense racism and sexism. During this time, many men believed that a man's brain was 10 percent bigger than a woman's brain on average, and that a woman's job was to act submissively and be beautiful. Because of this, many male physicians did not respect Dr. Crumpler, and would not approve her prescriptions for patients or listen to her medical opinions. Still, she persevered and worked passionately.
James West is an American inventor and acoustician. He is the child of one of the "human computers" depicted in the film "Hidden Figures" about a group of women who pioneered computer research for NASA.
Along with Gerhard Sessler, West invented the foil electret microphone in 1962 while developing instruments for human hearing research. Nearly 90 percent of microphones produced annually are based on the principles of the foil-electret and are used in everyday items such as telephones, camcorders, hearing aids, baby monitors, and audio recording devices, among others. Dr. West has over 250 patents to his name and is currently working--at age 90-- on a device to detect pneumonia in infant lungs.
In addition to his many contributions to acoustical science, West has been a fervent advocate for greater diversity in the fields of science and technology. While at Bell Laboratories, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE), and was also instrumental in the creation and development of both the Corporate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) for graduate students pursuing terminal degrees in the sciences, as well as the Summer Research Program, which together provided opportunities for over 500 non-white graduate students.
Dr. West is the recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and of The Franklin Institute's Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering. He is also an inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
Audre's first published poem appeared in "Seventeen" magazine while she was still in high school. Lorde’s early collections of poetry include "From a Land Where Other People Live" (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award. Her later works included powerful poems of protest. “I have a duty,” Lorde once stated, “to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”
Lorde was also a noted prose writer. Her account of her struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy, The Cancer Journals" (1980), is regarded as a major work of illness narrative.
In 1972, she began teaching as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College. Her experiences with teaching and pedagogy—as well as her place as a Black, queer woman in white academia—went on to inform her life and work.
In 1981, Lorde and fellow writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was dedicated to furthering the writings of black feminists. Lorde would also become increasingly concerned over the plight of black women in South Africa under apartheid, creating Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa and remaining an active voice on behalf of these women throughout the remainder of her life.
Rick Antonius Kittles is an American biologist specializing in human genetics. He achieved renown in the 1990s for his pioneering work in tracing the ancestry of African Americans via DNA testing.
In 1990, he began his career as a teacher in several New York and Washington, D.C. area high schools. From approximately 1995 until 1999, Kittles worked as a researcher with the New York African Burial Ground Project (NYABGP) during which the organization exhumed the remains of 408 African Americans from an 18th-century graveyard. Kittles gathered DNA samples from the remains and compared them with samples from a DNA database to determine from where in Africa the individuals buried in the graveyard had come.
This led him to co-found the company African Ancestry Inc., which set out to be the leading advocate for tracing the ancestry of individuals with African descent. Kittles has performed a large amount of research over his career, with much of this work being devoted to issues such as genetic ancestry and health disparities among African Americans and other minority groups. Kittles has also been a part of many cutting-edge developments, including the progress of genetic markers and how an individual's ancestry can be used to help identify risk of disease and health outcomes.
Charles Richard Drew was an American surgeon and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II. As the most prominent African American in the field, Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation.
Drew started what would be later known as bloodmobiles, which were trucks containing refrigerators of stored blood. This allowed for greater mobility in terms of transportation as well as prospective donations.
In 1941, Drew's distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first African-American surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.
Charles Henry Turner was an American zoologist, educator, and comparative psychologist, known for his studies on the behavior of insects, particularly bees and ants. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Turner was the first African American to receive a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati and most likely the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He spent most of his career as a high school teacher in Sumner High School in St. Louis.
During his undergraduate education, he was mentored by early comparative psychologist and biologist, Clarence L. Herrick. A summary of his undergraduate thesis on the neuroanatomy of bird brains was published in the journal Science in 1891. Turner published 49 papers on invertebrates, including "Habits of Mound-Building Ants", "Experiments on the Color Vision of the Honeybee", "Hunting Habits of an American Sand Wasp", and "Psychological Notes on the Gallery Spider". A large amount of Turner's research was conducted while he was teaching high school classes at Sumner. While at Sumner, he published 41 papers between 1908 and his death. Notably, Turner published three times in the journal Science. In his research, Turner became the first person to prove that insects can hear and can distinguish pitch. In addition, he first discovered that cockroaches can learn by trial and error and that honeybees can see color and patterns.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to multiple presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elite. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants.
Washington was a key proponent of African-American businesses and one of the founders of the National Negro Business League. His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college he founded in Tuskegee, Alabama. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech, known as the "Atlanta compromise", which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.
Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community's economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling.