Here’s my issue: We cram all of Black history into just one month,” she said. “All we have time for is that George Washington Carver and all of his peanut stuff. We should learn all of Black history, all the year round, and teach it to everybody.
Jones humorously identified inventions by black talents including the inventors of one of the first tri-color traffic signals (Garrett Morgan who also invented the gas mask) and freestanding drop letter mailbox with hinged lid (Philip B. Downing, patented 1891), and caller ID and call waiting.
Like many people, I found myself saying “I never knew that” as if someone had been keeping it from me!
Because she is a woman scientist and current president of the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, I wish to call special attention to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, whom Jones mentioned for her invention of call waiting. There are several people who claim to have invented caller ID and call waiting based on the websites I visited, but it is generally conceded that
Dr. Jackson conducted breakthrough basic scientific research that enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
The significance of her early research resembles that of the women mathematicians and engineers in Hidden Figures in that their work was critical to our country’s success in aeronautics and space exploration.
Jones’s four-minute skit below informs and entertains. Warning: Jones is provocative!
The majority of Black history curriculums focus on Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights Movement, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, and nothing else. This is how figures, like the women featured in the film, become hidden.
It is important for us to know about minority men and women who break new ground through their inventions and leadership because research shows that children may not consider preparing for highly-skilled work situations unless they see someone who shares their gender, race, or ethnic background who has succeeded in that role. Role modeling the broad range of work choices is why the Ms. Foundation and Gloria Steinem started the Take Our Daughters to Work Day in 1992, to boost girls’ ambitions and show them that they, too, could prepare to join any skilled profession that they desired. The program was expanded and renamed Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work day in the early 2000’s to embed it in school curricula across the country to enlighten all school children to the realm of career possibilities.
I wish to pull back the curtain on Black women’s inventions and ease from Black History Month into Women’s History Month with a few profiles of black women inventors. I am greatly assisted by Leila MacNeil at the Smithsonian Magazine with her February 2017 article titled “These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home.”
MacNeil featured four 19th century women inventors who overcame great odds to patent their creations. The twin evils–sexism and racism—worked against imaginative women in the 19th and 20 centuries to deny them admission to higher education. Additionally, according to Deborah Merritt, a law professor cited in MacNeil’s article, sexism and racism fostered “Restrictive state laws, poor educational systems, condescending cultural attitudes, and limited business opportunities.” MacNeil said that historians can identify only four African-American women who were granted patents for their inventions between 1865, the end of the Civil War, and the turn of the 19th century.
My favorite may be Sarah Elizabeth Goode’s invention. Bio.com reports that Goode was born into slavery in 1850 and moved to Chicago with her husband Archibald, a carpenter, after the Civil War. Together they owned a furniture store. Goode recognized the limitations of tiny Chicago apartments and invented the cabinet bed, an object that converts from a roll top desk into a bed. She patented the invention in 1885. It combines two of my favorite activities: sleeping and writing and makes the most of small living spaces. What’s not to like?
MacNeil identifies Miriam E. Benjamin as the second African-American woman inventor with a patent. Benjamin patented her gong and signal chair for hotels in 1888. Wikipedia provides more background: Benjamin was born as a free person in Charleston, SC in 1861 and moved to Boston with her family to enter high school. She trained to teach and resided and worked as a public schoolteacher in Washington, DC. Later she went to Howard University to become an attorney specializing in patent applications.
Benjamin’s special chair allowed its occupant to announce a need for service with a gong and red light, a precursor to attendant call buttons on airplanes. Her patent application spoke to how it would reduce costs for restaurants and hotels by reducing the number of staff needed to serve guests. Benjamin wished for the chair to be used widely in all spaces where people congregate, including the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. However, the House did not choose her design and I could not find anything on its selection by state houses.
Sarah Boone is the third African-American inventor featured by MacNeil. Boone improved upon the ironing board. Originally, the ironing board was a plank supported on both ends by chairs or tables (It sounds like the kind of setup we would rig in my home!). She curved the board to make it easier and more effective to iron women’s garments with special attention to sleeves and bodices. She lived in New Haven, Ct. when she received the U.S. patent in 1892.
Finally, MacNeil tells us that we only know about Ellen Elgin’s invention of the clothes wringer because of testimony she gave to The Woman Inventor. Regrettably, her testimony also explains why she sold her patient for $18 thereby making the new patent holder much richer than she would ever be.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into black women’s creativity. Next month we’ll continue the focus on more women leaders from different backgrounds and how they have shaped, and can, and do shape the quality of life for us.
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Views expressed in this blog post are mine and may not reflect the stance of the Zonta Club of Pinellas County or Zonta International. — Doris Reeves-Lipscomb
Resources used in this post include:
Evette Dionne and Leslie Jones, “Leslie Jones perfectly breaks down why Black History Month isn’t enough,” Revelist, January 23, 2017, http://www.revelist.com/viral/leslie-jones-black-history-month/6608
Katherine Dvorak, “Twenty Years and Counting: Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” National Women’s History Museum, http://bit.ly/2ll8U9T
Leila MacNeil, “These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mHFO5G
Pixabay, artist Couleur, https://pixabay.com/en/nuts-peanut-roasted-cores-snack-1736520