Welcome back to another installment of black history you may have never learned! Today, we’re going to meet some enterprising entrepreneurs, discover that some of our most important STEM breakthroughs have been due to people of color, and admire black artistry.
Next time you take something to get dry cleaned, tip your hat to Thomas Jennings, who invented the process.
Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1856) was the first African-American to be granted a patent, March 03, 1821 (U.S. patent 3306x). Jennings’ patent was for a dry cleaning process called “dry scouring”, which would go on to make modern-day dry cleaning possible. In his early 20s he became a tailor but then opened a dry cleaning business in New York City. While running his business Jennings developed dry-scouring and patented the process at age 30.
The patent to Jennings generated considerable controversy during this period.
Maggie Lena Walker was the first African American woman to found a bank. Walker was born in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia and educated in the city’s public schools. She taught for three years. Walker also joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal burial society that helped the ill and elderly and encouraged self-help.
And Ariell R. Johnson, who’s opening the first African-American owned comic book/coffee shop on the East Coast:
One coffee shop is serving diversity to the comic book scene.
Philadelphia’s Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is the first black-woman owned coffee shop on the East Coast.
“I got the idea for the shop about 12 years ago, when I was still attending Temple University,” Ariell R. Johnson, the owner, told Philadelphia Daily News. “My favorite coffee shop was directly across the street from my comic book store of choice. So, each Friday, I would buy my books at Fat Jack’s, go across the street to Crimson Moon, and read everything I bought.”
Not only has she built a business that’s the one-stop shop of her dreams. She’s also building a space that doesn’t treat diversity like an afterthought.
Meet Dr. Alexa Canady, who is one hell of a neurosurgeon.
Alexa Irene Canady had almost dropped out of college as an undergraduate, but after recovering her self-confidence she went on to qualify as the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States.
Alexa Canady earned a B.S. degree in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971, and graduated from the medical school there in 1975. “The summer after my junior year,” she explains, “I worked in Dr. Bloom’s lab in genetics and attended a genetic counseling clinic. I fell in love with medicine.” In her work as a neurosurgeon, she saw young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases. Throughout her twenty-year career in pediatric neurosurgery, Dr. Canady has helped thousands of patients, most of them age ten or younger.
Loney Clinton Gordon made a remarkable impact on children by her determination to succeed at her second-choice career as a lab technician. Gordon left her Arkansas birthplace as a young girl to move with her family to Michigan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics and chemistry from what was then called Michigan State College in 1939. However, her hopes to work as a dietitian were thwarted when she was told white male chefs would not want to take orders from a black female dietitian.
In the meantime, two women doctors, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, were searching for a laboratory technician for their research at the Western Michigan Laboratories, later known as Kent Community Hospital, located in Grand Rapids. During the day, the two doctors studied the purity of milk and water. After hours in a separate laboratory, Gordon helped the two doctors work on a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis, the cause of an infectious disease known as whooping cough. Even though at that time there were vaccines for the illness, they were ineffective. Coincidentally, the highest death tolls were occurring in Michigan. The three women embarked on what became a public-health crusade to search for a cure. Fueled by her determination to succeed at this career and her sympathy for the great number of sick and dying children throughout the world, Gordon discovered her life’s mission; to help find the culture with sufficient virulence to make an efficient vaccine against whooping cough. Gordon soon identified sheep blood as the key to the process of incubating the culture in petri dishes in the laboratory.
This year is not only the centennial of the National Park Service but also the sesquicentennial of the Buffalo Soldier regiments formed in 1866. In addition to serving in the Indian Wars, these African Americans (9th Cavalry) were among the first national park rangers, patrolling Sequoia & Yosemite. They built the first park museum (1904, in Wawona); the first usable wagon road into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks‘ Giant Forest (1903), and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (1903), the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
Since before the Civil War, black scientists have been conducting pioneering research that has changed the way we still live and work today. Despite experiencing racial bias from an early age, these remarkable people kept their eyes on the prize. They persevered when educational opportunities were barred because of prejudice, and found ways to do research when employment was denied for no reason other than the color of their skin.
From well-known black scientists, such as George Washington Carver, to James West, who coinvented the microphone, to those whose impressive scientific records have nearly languished in obscurity, our list will have you rethinking what else might be left out of your history textbook.
Remember when basically every cartoon was West-and-white-centric? The times are changing, and they are super awesome.
In 2012, Adamu Naziri, a Nigerian animator, fed up with the limited (and negative) coverage of Africa, decided to create an educational cartoon to teach children about African culture. Enter: Bino and Pino.
I trekked up to Harlem to catch the debut show of mixed-media artist Fabiola Jean Louis, a Brooklyn-based Haitian artist that “explores the events of the past, present, and the possibilities of the future that involve her community.” I’d heard great buzz about her last year during Afro Punk (which I missed) and she’d been on my radar to check out ever since. A friend put me on to her latest show, “Re-writing History: Paper Gowns and Photographs.”
I was floored. Louis blends cultures and history, and highlighting women of color in a really beautiful way. Although it was a small exhibition, but I spent a good hour marveling at work. The detail, the colors, the historical references I had to Google on my phone!
The next time someone tells you that people of color are out of place in works of fantasy or SF based on ancient European cultures, go medieval on their asses.
I’m always amazed at how many people are so quick to argue that people of color did not exist in Europe during medieval times or that black people, for instance, weren’t around during the Greek and Roman eras. And to include said PoCs during such time periods would be unrealistic and another example of shoving a PC agenda down our throats OH-EM-GEE.
First of all, people of color have been in Europe for ages. Think about it. Between all the wars, travel, and trade that countries and nations do, it would only make sense that some PoCs have traveled, relocated, and settled in other lands.
Alabama native Ann Cole Lowe: Black Fashion Designer Who Created Jacqueline Kennedy’s Wedding Dress. In 1953, Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. The voluminous, off-the-shoulder dress was constructed out of 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. Just 10 days before the wedding ceremony a water line broke in Lowe’s New York City studio and ruined the former First Lady’s gown along with all 10 pink bridesmaids dresses. Lowe worked tirelessly to recreate all 11 designs in time for the Rhode Island nuptials. Sadly, Lowe did not get the credit she deserved for designing and creating Jackie’s all-important dress. Jackie is said to have told people that her gown was made by a “colored woman dressmaker” and Lowe was only mentioned by name in the Washington Post where fashion editor Nine Hyde simply wrote “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”
Remember Naomi Sims, who blazed a trail into the modeling world:
Ms. Sims is sometimes referred to as the first black supermodel.
“Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”
Ms. Sims often said childhood insecurities and a painful upbringing — living in foster homes, towering over her classmates and living in a largely poor white neighborhood in Pittsburgh — had inspired her to strive to become “somebody really important” at a time when cultural perceptions of black Americans were being challenged by the civil rights movement and a renewed stress on racial pride.
#OscarsSoWhite, but black actors do win Academy Awards. Meet the first:
Hattie McDaniel was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award. Born in the 1890s in Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was trained in minstrelsy before the Great Depression. She was one of a few women doing impressions for African American audiences at the time.
And yes, there were black women in the Victorian age, rocking those gorgeous gowns.