Black History Month is a global celebration of the achievements and history of African Americans. Although it originated in the United States, other countries around the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands also devote a month during the year to celebrate Black history.
This month, we recognize some of those innovators and unsung Black heroes whose achievements have truly pathed our way for delivering a better world.
While this list only highlights a small number of Black innovators who have helped deliver a better world, there is plenty of history to uncover and we are committed to honoring and celebrating Black history.
Bessie Coleman While Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers have long been recognized figures in aviation, Bessie Coleman is another name you should know for charting the path for the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos. Born on January 26, 1892, to a family of Texas sharecroppers, Coleman was the first Black woman and first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. Despite her interest in flying, the industry was restricted to white men in the United States, forcing Coleman to earn her license from France’s Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921. Her courage unlocked the skies for future generations.
Henry Sampson He was the first Black student in the United States to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering, which he received from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. On July 6, 1971, Sampson was awarded a patent with George H. Miley for the invention of the gamma-electric cell, a direct-conversion energy device that transforms the energy generated from the radiation of high-energy gamma rays into electricity. From 1967 to 1987 he worked for the Aerospace Corp., contributing to every phase of space operation for small satellites. His other patents include a binder system for rocket propellants and explosives and a case-bonding system for cast-composite rocket propellants, both related to the manufacturing and production of solid-propellant rocket motors.
Carroll Robinson He was the first Black engineer hired by the Army Security Agency, which later became part of the National Security Agency, in 1948. Robinson graduated from Howard University with an electrical engineering degree. Hired to work in research and development (R&D), he was assigned to the team charged with building the agency’s first in-house-developed digital computer, ABNER 1. R&D was one of the few areas where Black employees worked alongside their White colleagues, sharing a mission of protecting the nation. Robinson later became the agency’s first Black senior executive, retiring from federal service as an office chief.
Robert Smalls He was born a slave behind his owner’s opulent house in Beaufort, South Carolina. Although he lived in the city as a boy, his mother wanted to ensure that he fully comprehended the evils of slavery and arranged for him to work in the fields. Later, he was rented out for work around Charleston, learning several jobs as well as the harbor. All of Smalls’ experience and knowledge paid off when he commandeered a Confederate ship during the Civil War and thus managed to free himself as well as his Black crew members and their families. After the war, Smalls expanded the possibilities of freedom as a first-generation Black politician, serving in the South Carolina state legislature and five terms in the US House of Representatives. The life of Robert Smalls ended as the owner of the same stately residence where it began as the possession of another man. While no geography separates the locations of the two points defining Robert Smalls’ lifespan, the distance between them is truly immense.
Bessie Blount She was a physical therapist and an inventor. She created several methods for amputee veterans to feed themselves and to gain independence. While working at the Bronx Hospital, in New York, she invented an electric self-feeding apparatus. Blount said in an interview that her accomplishment showed that “a colored woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.” While she received patents for her medical devices, she had a varied career that included a stint as physical therapist to Thomas Edison’s son, Theodore Miller Edison, as well as entering into the world of forensic handwriting.
Valerie Thomas She developed computer data systems, conducted large-scale experiments, and managed various operations, projects, and facilities .While managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, Thomas’s team spearheaded the development of the first satellite to send images from space. The technology developed by Thomas is used by NASA to this day. Scientists are currently exploring how to utilize her idea in surgical tools and even television and video.
Granville Woods One of Granville Woods’s most notable inventions was a device he called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a variation of induction telegraph that relied on ambient static electricity from existing telegraph lines to send messages between train stations and moving trains. Over his lifetime, Woods secured more than 50 patents, many involving communications and transportation. Others, including Thomas Edison, laid claim to some of his inventions, but Woods successfully defended himself. Ultimately, Woods’s work ensured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.