Black Innovators and Entreprenurs under Capitalism

Article excerpt

Economics, History

IDEAS ON LIBERTY

OCTOBER 2001

The historical injustices against black Americans have been numerous and prolonged. But despite slavery, racism, and Jim Crow laws, many blacks have achieved an exceptionally high level of accomplishment in the United States. It is yet another injustice that the stories of these great black achievers are unknown to most Americans of any race or ethnicity. This is unjust because it ignores the accomplishments of those who have achieved in the face of such adversity, and because it deprives the rest of us of the lessons to be learned from studying their lives.

Many current intellectuals claim that the success of blacks requires elimination of racism. The success of these black innovators disproves such a claim and raises the question of the actual conditions necessary for the rise of a deprecated ethnic minority. A second question to be answered involves the reasons for such widespread contemporary ignorance of the accomplishments of these great black thinkers. Finally, the stories are inspirational in themselves, apart from any educational benefits to be derived from them.

Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 in Maryland, the child of a free mulatto mother and an African father who had purchased his own freedom. Banneker excelled in mathematics as a student and, after taking over his parents' farm, at agriculture. When a traveling salesman named Josef Levi showed Banneker a pocket watch, the young man was so fascinated that Levi gave it to him. In 1753, using the watch as a model, Banneker carved a wooden clock that kept perfect time, striking every hour for 40 years. It was the first wooden clock ever produced in the United States.

As a freedman, Banneker had the opportunities provided by American liberty but denied to most blacks, and he took full advantage of them. When neighbors introduced him to astronomy, he mastered the science so thoroughly that he predicted the solar eclipse of April 14, 1789, and used his knowledge to publish an almanac that became the main reference for farmers of the mid-Atlantic states. President Washington, aware of Banneker's intellect, appointed him to the six-man team that designed the blueprints for Washington, D.C. When the team's leader, Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, suddenly resigned and took the plans with him to France, Banneker's photographic memory enabled him to reproduce them in full. His lengthy letter to Thomas Jefferson was so filled with insight that Jefferson changed his mind about the alleged intellectual inferiority of blacks. In tribute, Jefferson sent a copy of Banneker's almanac to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. "The color of the skin is in no way connected to the strength of the mind or intellectual powers," wrote Banneker, in a statement far ahead of its time.1

Andrew Jackson Beard is another little-- known innovative black thinker. Born into slavery in Alabama in 1849, Beard became a flourishing entrepreneur and inventor after emancipation. He designed new plows and with the profits made on his innovations developed a thriving real estate business. Beard was responsible for several inventions, but his greatest advance was the automatic railroad-car (or "Jenny") coupler, which greatly reduced the risk to workers. It was the forerunner of today's automatic coupler. Beard received a patent in 1897. His story reminds us that despite often bitter racial hatred in the south, some black Americans possessed the extraordinary talent and initiative to succeed there.2

The one black genius of that era to achieve enduring recognition, and whose groundbreaking advances were also achieved in the Jim Crow South, was George Washington Carver, who was born a slave in Missouri in 1860. After earning a master's degree from Iowa State in 1896, he received a letter from Booker T. Washington, head of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, requesting his instructional services. …