Black History Month is an essential time for reflection and national community; about honoring the past, informing the present and shaping a better future. In part 2 of the series, we highlight Black pioneers whose legacies have made the industries we support possible.
C.R. Patterson, Patterson & Sons
Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833. He learned the skills of the blacksmith and found work in the carriage-making trade, where he developed a reputation for building a high quality product. He teamed up with J.P. Lowe in 1873 to start a horse carriage factory. But Patterson’s son, Frederick, turned the business into a successful, full-fledged car company, employing an integrated workforce of 35-50 by the turn of the century and makers of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile from 1915 to 1918. Though its name is little recognized today, as a victim of the Great Depression, it was, and remains to this day, the only African American owned and operated automobile company. (Source)
George Washington Carver
While George Washington Carver is a well-known scientist and inventor, he was also a pioneer in the automotive sector. Carver had an unlikely partnership with Henry Ford. In 1937, when both Carver and Ford were in their early seventies, they met in person for the first time. At Ford’s invitation, Carver traveled to Michigan to tour Ford’s factories and discuss their shared interests. Once World War II broke out and the U.S. experienced a wartime shortage of rubber, Carver helped Ford produce a synthetic rubber to alleviate the shortage. (Source)
Richard B. Spikes
Richard Bowie Spikes was a prolific inventor with eight patents to his name, awarded between 1907 and 1946. Of all his innovations, the best-known are those related to automotive technology. Spikes’ gear shifting device aimed to keep the gears for various speeds in constant mesh, enhancing the turn-of-the-century invention of the automatic transmission. His automatic brake safety system was also significant; according to the patent application, it provided a reserve braking action in case of damage to the normal braking means and is still used in some buses as a fail-safe means of stopping the vehicle. Spikes is widely credited with patenting an automobile signaling system (turn signal) in the early 1910s. (Source)
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, noted physicist and former head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), was one of the first two Black American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the U.S. and the first to receive a doctorate from MIT.
As the first Black American woman to serve on the NRC and the first woman and Black American to lead the NRC, she enhanced its regulatory effectiveness and initiated a bottom-up strategic assessment of all NRC activities. Committed to promoting social justice, she organized MIT’s Black Student Union and worked to increase the number of Black students entering MIT. After only one year, the number entering rose from 2 to 57.
Time magazine has called her “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.” (Source)
Boykin was born on Aug. 29, 1920, in Dallas, Texas, and after graduating as valedictorian from Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1938, he earned a scholarship to attend Fisk University. While in college, he landed a job testing automatic aircraft controls at an aerospace laboratory close to the university. In 1944, he moved to Illinois to work in the P.J. Nilsen Research Labs. Boykin’s innovations to electronic resistors enabled the development of many of the devices we use every day. Found in everything from televisions to smartphones, variations of Boykin’s resistor designs enable the precise regulation of electrical current within a circuit.
Perhaps Boykin’s greatest contribution came in 1964, when he created a control unit for pacemakers, small devices that help regulate the heartbeat by administering electric stimulation. (Source)
Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Malone was born in 1869 to formerly enslaved parents and orphaned at a young age. From an early age, Malone understood that for African American women, appearance and grooming represented more than their personal style. It could also indicate a woman’s class and social standing. She realized that improving hair health could also have a positive effect on the lives of African Americans. This led Malone to develop products to help women adapt to a society that judged them based on how they met the American standard of beauty. Malone not only faced the challenges of being a Black woman in a segregated society but a businesswoman in a sexist society. Undeterred, she began experimenting with chemistry and established a successful business after developing a line of products that were advertised to help improve scalp health and promote hair growth. (Source)
Bessie Coleman soared across the sky as the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn her pilot’s license in the U.S. When Coleman decided she wanted to learn to fly, the discrimination she faced based on race and gender meant that she would have to travel to France to realize her dreams. Coleman was the only student of color in her class, but within seven months she achieved her goal. (Source)
Throughout February, we will be sharing more stories of individuals whom we admire through their unbending character, strength in the face of adversity and achievements.