Overlooked American innovators deserve recognition during Black History Month

The following is a collection of black icons who, due to racism and the whitewashing of history, have been essentially lost to time. Each person detailed in this article had a huge contribution to society that has been skipped over in our textbooks. There are activists, artists, inventors, some lawmakers and even some people who’s attributions were simply their eccentricity. 

First up is Garret Morgan. Despite never hearing his name you have most likely used at least one of Morgan’s inventions daily. In his life Morgan invented an improved sewing machine, a hair straightening product, the three position traffic light and even the smoke hood, more commonly known as the gas mask. 

The most interesting thing about Morgan, however, was his reasoning for these inventions. The traffic light was born because he once saw an automobile accident and just decided that he shouldn’t have to see that again, so he invented the traffic light, and this was basically how he did all of his work. Originally the gas mask was designed for firemen after Morgan saw a team struggling through the smoke. He used a moist sponge in the mask to filter the smoke and cool the air they were breathing. His work not only kept firemen safe, but it also kept millions alive during World War 1 and led to the development of the gas masks used in World War 2, and that’s not all, so I highly encourage you to look further into Morgan and everyone else on this list. 

Our next icon is Sarah E. Goode. In 1885 Goode became the second known black woman to receive a United States patent. The patent was for a folding cabinet bed, which, when folded, looks like a desk. The bed was perfect for the cramped living situation of many people in the late 1880s, especially in places like Chicago where Goode lived. Her work revolutionized the world of those living paycheck to paycheck lifestyles and continues to do so to this day.

Jerry Lawson was a notable engineer and pioneer for video games and home entertainment as an industry. His more noteworthy accomplishments were his work on the Fairchild Channel F video game console, but also as leader of the team that developed the first commercial video game cartridge. The Fairchild Channel F (Short for Channel Fun) console made its debut in 1976 for the retail price of $169.95. That’s roughly $832.73 nowadays. Due to his work on the project, Lawson had a console for his own children practically for free and a spot in gaming history. 

Suffragette, inventor and hair stylist? Lyda D. Newman was an extremely intelligent woman who fought for women’s rights, but on top of that, she was also the woman who patented the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles. Following Goode, Newman was the third black woman to ever receive a United States patent, and it was for something that many use daily. She was working as a hairstylist when she came up with the design for an easy to disassemble, easy to clean and easy to use brush. Needless to say, this revolutionized hair care for all textures, thicknesses and types. 

Kerry James Marshall has spent his career gathering many accomplishments. He was a professor of painting at the school of art and design at the university of Illinois and in 2017 he was listed on the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. He is a contemporary artist whose pieces often depict abstract depictions of melanated people in everyday life experiencing social oppression. Pieces like “Chicago Has Wrung Every Bit of Value They Could from the Fruits of My Labor” and “School of Beauty, School of Culture” are two of his most affluent works.

Another artist, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller is known not only for her art but for her movement. Starting in the 1910s, Vaux Warrick Fuller created a series of works depicting African and African American experience. From intimate portraits of her friends and family members to self portraits, these even became commissioned works for national and international expositions. Like many African American artists in the 1920s, she had a hand in the Harlem Renaissance with her pieces “Talking Skull,” “Love & War” and “The Wretched.” Her work was a snapshot of the suffering people like Vaux Warrick Fuller and her loved ones would have dealt with. She was extremely influential, with her work inspiring artists of all kinds to this day to express their pain through their work. 

In August 1963, Ledger Smith, skated from Chicago to Washington in order to make a statement on his way to the march on Washington and Dr. King’s legendary speech. His only way to bring attention to the cause was his dapper roller skates and his freedom sash. More of a footnote to the iconic march, Smith is an icon in the sense that he made his mark with what he already had. Proving that activism is for anyone no matter your financial status, location, or abilities. 

Deborah Batts made her mark not as an activist but as a federal judge. Judge Batts was the first black, openly gay judge in the United States when she was sworn in during gay pride week of June of 1994. Not only did she make a statement by presiding over a court as a woman of color, she also made her mark by being openly married to a woman. Her wife’s name was Dr. Gwen Lois Zomberg, and together they had two children: James and Alexandra McCown. Sadly, the judge died Feb. 3 of 2020, but her impact is not unrecogninzed in neither the queer nor the BIPOC communities. 

And our final mention is Kylar Broadus. Broadus is an entrepreneur, an attorney at law and a trans right activist. He also became famous when he became the first trans man to testify in front of the United States Senate on behalf of the employment non discrimination act. He founded the Trans People of Color coalition in 2010 and has since worked to help fight against transphobia, racism and all forms of legal discrimination. He is a man of strong morals and as he continues his fight he will continue to inspire activists to go above and beyond society’s expectations. 

Thank you for your time, and I hope that you will consider looking further into these individuals and others like them in your own time. We only learn about a few of the people that have pushed this movement forward in our history classes, and it’s time we learned more. I hope your research is fun, fulfilling and successful. Happy Black History Month. 

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