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February 15, 2005 > The History of Black History Month

The History of Black History Month

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

From Jackie Robinson to Tiger Woods, Harriet Tubman to Barack Obama, Black History Month recognizes inspirational African Americans from the past, as well as those who will continue to make history well into the future. This tribute dates back to 1926 and is credited to a Harvard scholar named Carter G. Woodson.

The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines, enrolling in high school at age 20. He graduated two years later and went on to attend Harvard University where he earned a Ph.D. During his studies, Woodson was disturbed to find that history books blatantly ignored the story of the black American and dedicated his life to ensuring that African American history was accurately documented and disseminated.

In an effort to bring national attention to the contributions of black Americans, Woodson organized the first Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. However, February has much more than Douglass and Lincoln to show for its significance in black American history.

A number of relevant events to African American history took place in February. It is the month that, in 1868, important civil rights leader and co-founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois, was born. February of 1870 was an important time in the history of African Americans for on the third day of the month, the 15th Amendment was passed granting blacks the right to vote and on the 25th Hiram R. Revels, took his oath of office, becoming the first black U.S. Senator. In February of 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in New York City. February 1, 1960, marked what would become a milestone in the civil rights movement when a group of black Greensboro, N.C. college students held a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. February is also a time of remembrance for Malcolm X who was assassinated by three Black Muslims in 1965.

February is the month devoted to highlighting the numerous contributions that African Americans have made to a society that was not always generous with them. During slavery, most black slaves were denied formal education. In the South, laws were passed prohibiting slave literacy in the aftermath of various slave rebellions. Even free blacks found themselves limited in their access to mainstream, quality education and vocational training.

This limited education and training meant that, for the most part, blacks were shut out of professional occupations and confined to working in industries deemed "acceptable" for them, such as domestic services, some manual trades and agriculture. Nevertheless a number of African Americans were able to overcome these social obstacles and make significant contributions to American life.
Most Americans are familiar with mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker (born a freeman), who constructed the first American-made striking clock, and agricultural chemist and innovator, George Washington Carver (born a slave), best-known for developing hundreds of applications for agricultural products, most notably the peanut. Yet there are numerous other black individuals in the history of our country that revolutionized technology and science as we know them today.

As surgeon of the South Side Dispensary in Chicago, Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931) became keenly aware of the lack of facilities for training African Americans like himself as doctors and nurses. As a result he organized the Provident Hospital, the first black hospital in the United States. In 1893, Williams performed the first successful closure of a wound of the heart and pericardium-the first successful open heart surgery.

Zoologist Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) held a doctorate from the University of Chicago, yet chose to teach at high schools so he could devote more time to the observation of insects. Turner published several articles in scientific journals, 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." Through his research, Turner became the first person to prove that insects can hear and are able to distinguish pitch. He also discovered that cockroaches can learn by trial and error.

Dr. Rebecca Cole (1846-1922) was the second African American woman physician in the United States and was the first black woman to graduate from the Woman's Medical College in Pennsylvania. She was appointed as a resident physician at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which was a hospital owned and operated by women physicians, from 1872-1881. Cole worked with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first white American woman physician to receive a medical degree, in New York and taught hygiene and childcare to families in poor neighborhoods.

Roger Arliner Young (1889 - 1964) became the first African American woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in zoology, at the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. Her scientific contributions, resulting largely from research she performed at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., include improved understanding of the structures that control salt concentration in the paramecium, as well as the effects of radiation on sea urchin eggs. Young taught at a number of universities, including Howard University, North Carolina College for Negroes, Shaw University, North Carolina, as well as at colleges in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Scientists in the African American community changed medicine as we know it today. Black inventors also made important contributions to technology, allowing the United States to prosper and grow in its early years.

Unlike slaves, free blacks prior to the Civil War were entitled to receive patents for their inventions. Some slaves, who were skilled craftsmen, did create devices or techniques that benefited the slave owner's enterprises. According to a decision by the federal government in 1858, though, neither the slave nor the slave owner could claim ownership rights to such an invention. In 1870, following the Civil War, the U.S. patent laws were revised so that anyone, regardless of race, could hold a patent. Consequently the number of patents issued to African Americans soared.

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859), a tailor in New York City, is credited with being the first African American to hold a U.S. patent. The patent, which was issued in 1821, was for a dry-cleaning process.

Benjamin Bradley (1830?-?), a slave, was employed at a printing office and later at the Annapolis Naval Academy, where he helped set up scientific experiments. In the 1840s he developed a steam engine for a war ship. Unable to patent his work, he sold it and used the proceeds purchased his freedom.

The son of former slaves from Kentucky who had escaped via the Underground Railroad to Canada at 15 years of age, Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) traveled to Scotland seeking the educational opportunities from which blacks were excluded in the Americas. He trained in mechanical engineering and then moved to the United States, where he was denied engineering employment-again because he was of African descent. He instead took a job as a railroad fireman. At that time, locomotives needed to be shut down periodically and lubricated to avoid overheating. The frequent stops prevented railroads from being profitable until McCoy developed the "lubricating cup" for steam engines. His invention kept locomotives constantly lubricated, preventing frequent stops and overheating. He patented the lubricating cup in 1872. The quality and reliability of this invention gave rise to the statement that something was "the real McCoy" if it was original and dependable. The lubricating cup represented the most profitable of McCoy's more than 58 patents, which included a folding ironing board and an automatic sprinkler.

Born in Chelsea, Mass., Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1929) learned mechanical drawing while working for a Boston patent attorney. He later invented an electric lamp and a carbon filament for light bulbs (patented 1881 and 1882, respectively). He was responsible for preparing the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for his telephone design. Latimer was the only African American member of Thomas Edison's engineering laboratory, the Edison Pioneers. For years he served as an expert witness in the court battles over Thomas Edison's patents.

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) dedicated his life to developing a number of inventions for the railroad, a booming industry at the time. The self-educated Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and numerous others that controlled the flow of electricity. Among his more noteworthy inventions was a telegraph that allowed moving trains to communicate with other trains and train stations, improving railway efficiency and safety across the United States.

Frederick McKinley Jones (1892-1961) grew up an orphan Cincinnati, Ohio and did not attend schools beyond the eighth grade. He was awarded 60 patents during his career, 40 of which concentrated on the field of refrigeration. An experienced mechanic, Jones invented a self-starting gas engine and a series of devices for movie projectors. More importantly, he invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks (1935), ultimately leading to the creation of the frozen food industry.

The inventions and scientific advancements of these individuals contributed to the social and technological advancement of the United States. They are not just notable African Americans they are integral to the history of the United States of America.

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