Black Innovation: Learning from the Past

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Black Innovation: Learning from the Past


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


SPECIAL REPORT

African Americans in Technology

If it weren't for Black History Month, it's unlikely that a significant number of Americans would ever come across the names of individuals such as Granville T. Woods, Garrett Morgan, Jan Ernst Matzeliger and Elijah McCoy. These individuals, who lived largely during the 19th century, are the best known figures among African Americans who distinguished themselves as inventors in American history.

Their legacy, sporadically celebrated each February, has long represented an opportunity for scholars to paint a fuller picture of the history of technology in America. Though the deeds of Black inventors have been often popularized anecdotally in magazine articles, Black History Month advertisements, lectures and radio programs, very little scholarship has documented the deeper social and economic context of their lives and the impact of their inventions, according to experts.

"These inventors were not anomalies. They came out of a tradition. These were African Americans who were crafts (persons) who had skills," says Dr. Spencer Crew, executive director and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Scholars are beginning to recognize that exploring African American contributions to the nation's technology base also means exploring early African American social status as active participants in the making of American society. It is felt that public scholarship, typically embodied by history museum exhibitions, and public interest stoked by events, such as Black History Month, have been setting the stage for the academy to take greater interest in Black American contributions in technology.

Further, some believe that a deeper understanding of Black innovation in American history might prove useful to policy-makers, educators and corporate leaders who are struggling to bring more American-- born minorities into high-tech occupations and ownership. As in the 19th century, today's digital revolution revolves around issues of citizenship and preparation for participating in a technologically driven economy.

"I think that with studying the past you get a better perspective on how you got to the present," says Crew, who curated the groundbreaking "Field to Factory" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington.

EXHIBITING BLACK INVENTION

In the late 1980s, the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington presented "The Real McCoy, African American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930" exhibition. It showcased the contributions of slave and free Black inventors prior to the Civil War and the inventions by Blacks between the Civil War and 1930. The exhibition, which first ran at the Anacostia museum in 1987, circulated around the nation at history museums for two years.

"John Kinard, the (late) founding director of the museum, wanted young people to be inspired by the Black men and women who made a real impact on American history with their inventions," says Portia James, the curator of the Anacostia museum.

The "Real McCoy" exhibition happened to coincide with the Smithsonian's "Field to Factory" exhibition, which won praise for illustrating the African American migration out of a southern agricultural society into industrialized cities in the North and Midwest

James, who curated the "Real McCoy" exhibition, recalls that it proved challenging gathering information about individuals who were not typically included in the "top 10 or 15" famous Black inventors' list. Nonetheless, she conceived the exhibition to place the Black inventor within a deeper social and economic context than had been traditionally characterized in much of the documentation on them.

"The idea behind the exhibition was to get people not to think of inventing as an isolated act by an isolated person," James explains. …

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