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Black Innovation: Learning From The Past

Black Innovation: Learning From The Past

By Ronald Roach

If it weren’t for Black History Month, it’s unlikely that a significant number of Americans would ever come across the names of individuals such as Granville T. Woods, Garrett Morgan, Jan Ernst Matzeliger and Elijah McCoy. These individuals, who lived largely during the 19th century, are the best known figures among African Americans who distinguished themselves as inventors in American history.
Their legacy, sporadically celebrated each February, has long represented an opportunity for scholars to paint a fuller picture of the history of technology in America. Though the deeds of Black inventors have been often popularized anecdotally in magazine articles, Black History Month advertisements, lectures and radio programs, very little scholarship has documented the deeper social and economic context of their lives and the impact of their inventions, according to experts.
“These inventors were not anomalies. They came out of a tradition. These were African Americans who were crafts (persons) who had skills,” says Dr. Spencer Crew, executive director and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Scholars are beginning to recognize that exploring African American contributions to the nation’s technology base also means exploring early African American social status as active participants in the making of American society. It is felt that public scholarship, typically embodied by history museum exhibitions, and public interest stoked by events, such as Black History Month, have been setting the stage for the academy to take greater interest in Black American contributions in technology.
Further, some believe that a deeper understanding of Black innovation in American history might prove useful to policy-makers, educators and corporate leaders who are struggling to bring more American-born minorities into high-tech occupations and ownership. As in the 19th century, today’s digital revolution revolves around issues of citizenship and preparation for participating in a technologically driven economy.
“I think that with studying the past you get a better perspective on how you got to the present,” says Crew, who curated the groundbreaking “Field to Factory” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

In the late 1980s, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington presented “The Real McCoy, African American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930” exhibition. It showcased the contributions of slave and free Black inventors prior to the Civil War and the inventions by Blacks between the Civil War and 1930. The exhibition, which first ran at the Anacostia museum in 1987, circulated around the nation at history museums for two years. 
“John Kinard, the (late) founding director of the museum, wanted young people to be inspired by the Black men and women who made a real impact on American history with their inventions,” says Portia James, the curator of the Anacostia museum.
The “Real McCoy” exhibition happened to coincide with the Smithsonian’s  “Field to Factory” exhibition, which won praise for illustrating the African American migration out of a southern agricultural society into industrialized cities in the North and Midwest. 
James, who curated the “Real McCoy” exhibition, recalls that it proved challenging gathering information about individuals who were not typically included in the “top 10 or 15” famous Black inventors’ list. Nonetheless, she conceived the exhibition to place the Black inventor within a deeper social and economic context than had been traditionally characterized in much of the documentation on them.
“The idea behind the exhibition was to get people not to think of inventing as an isolated act by an isolated person,” James explains.
The focus on the social context of invention allowed James to show that Blacks, whether free or enslaved, were enthusiastic contributors to a young American society that prized innovation and inventiveness. 
“(Inventiveness) was a strong element among Americans in general. Blacks were like anyone else who had creative impulses,” James says.
“Even among slaves who didn’t have much incentive to work on inventions, there’s evidence to suggest that they were clearly active in making improvements to the technology of their time. It’s a real testament to the human capacity for creativity,” she adds.
 The exhibition traced the earliest contributions by African American craftsmen and women, who left virtually no written records of their own, to the 17th century. The work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists has been critical in explaining how objects were made and used by African Americans and how their skills were acquired and passed on.
One of the difficulties in documenting Black inventions revolved around the fact that slave masters often took credit for slave inventions and little, if any, recognition ever went to actual slaves, according to James. The issue of recognition became critically important as abolitionists, free Blacks and others argued in the 19th century that Black contributions in technology bolstered the case for African American freedom and full citizenship.
“We have letters and publications by abolitionists that prominently cite Black inventors and their inventions,” James says.
Part of the exhibition included the story of a 19th-century Mississippi slave named Ned who invented a cotton-picking device sometime prior to the Civil War. Ned’s owner attempted to obtain a patent on the device but the federal government denied the application. The U.S. Attorney General ruled that neither the slave owner nor Ned could obtain a patent since Ned was not considered a citizen and the slave owner had not invented the device.
In contrast, James points out that the Confederacy during the Civil War passed a law that allowed slave owners to obtain patents on inventions created by their slaves. Prior to the Civil War, free Blacks could legally obtain patents on their inventions.
“Both the federal and Confederate governments addressed the issue of slave inventions because it was a significant issue in society,” James says.
After the Civil War, Blacks remained engaged in inventing products not only for agricultural purposes but also for industrial uses. James points out that Blacks continued to bolster their claims for legal equality by promoting their contributions to technology. Influential Blacks, such as Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, attached themselves to projects to promote awareness of Black inventors, according to James.   
The best known examples of Black inventors are those who lived during the late 19th century and early 20th century. One Black inventor, Jan Ernst Matzeliger, invented a device that revolutionized the entire shoe industry by automating the shoemaking process. Another inventor, Granville T. Woods, was called the “Black Edison” after successfully defending himself against Thomas Edison’s claims of inventing devices originally credited to Woods. Woods received more than 60 patents in his lifetime, primarily for electrical and telegraphic devices.
“All of the African American publications promoted the achievements of Black inventors. DuBois featured them in the Crisis (magazine),” James notes.
James says the interest in promoting knowledge about Black inventors has long been a part of Black History Month, dating from the time it was founded as Negro History Week by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926.
“Woodson was known to have had people writing him about (Black) inventors for a number of years,” James says, acknowledging that the push to promote Black inventors has also become a way to inspire African Americans to embrace technology.
Raymond B. Webster, an information specialist in Philadelphia, spent 15 years writing African American Firsts in Science and Technology (Gale Group), which was published in 2000 and features 250 inventors among 1,200 breakthrough listings by Blacks in science and technology. Webster sees his work clearly as one aimed at both inspiring and educating young people. He hopes that young Blacks will pay serious attention to the scientific and technological accomplishments, but says that too little research on Black participation has been done. 
 “(Black) contributions to science and technology are not well documented,” he says, adding that numerous school districts have purchased his volume as a reference book.
Webster says that while he has been to eager to collect information and present it in reference form, he is disappointed that few academic historians and sociologists have taken on Black inventors to write interpretive works about their lives.
 “(The historians and sociologists) are not looking at these accomplishments in depth. I’d like to see some work on the economic impact of some of these inventions. For example, Matzeliger transformed the entire shoe industry with his invention,” Webster says.
He wonders why few Afro-American studies scholars have looked at science and technology, particularly in comparison to the work that’s been done in African American literature, social history and art. “This is puzzling to me,” Webster says.

Among prominent Black scholars in science and technology studies, there is recognition that Black inventors deserve serious scrutiny by academic historians and sociologists. “The story hasn’t been told,” says Dr. Willie Pearson, Jr., chair of the school of History, Technology and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“There have been very few Black historians and sociologists of science and technology in the academy,” according to Pearson, who is a renown sociologist of science.
Pearson says part of the reason that Black inventors have gotten little scrutiny by scholars is that White researchers “have not seen the value of doing this work.” He believes that ultimately the research will largely come from Black scholars who take interest in Black inventors.
Dr. Kenneth Manning, a history of science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., is optimistic that younger Black scholars will be encouraged to take on inventors and produce serious studies on Black technologists and inventors in the coming years. He adds that the issue of race in science and technology is often sidestepped by scholars. Manning has critiqued articles and studies by White scholars about 19th-century inventors who were Black, but their race is never mentioned.
“These are instances where racial identity is submerged. You find that happens a lot in science and technology studies,” Manning says.
Manning, who is the author of a book on the life of Black biologist Dr. Ernest Everett Just, is working on an encyclopedia on Blacks in science and technology.     
For his part, Pearson wants to see documentation of African American innovation that occurred after the 1930s and 1940s as large industrial corporations began to dominate technology development. He says it’s critical to examine where Black technologists and inventors have been in the post-World War II era.
“We need to have histories of Blacks in the computer age,” he says. 

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