Telling the Untold: Taking Black history beyond one month
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - From inventors to award-winners and those who’ve made groundbreaking changes in society, Black Americans continue shaping this country.
For Black History Month, 10/11 NOW’s Kamri Sylve sheds light on achievements Black Americans have made, taking Black history beyond just one month, with our series “Telling the Untold.”
Bryant Gumbel: Paving the way for other Black journalists, in 1982, Bryant Gumbel became the first Black co-host and anchor of NBC’s The Today Show. After Gumbel’s appearance, ratings improved, and by 1986, The Today Show was the most popular morning show in America. He first got his start in TV as a sportscaster in Los Angeles. After leaving NBC in 1997, Gumbel went across the street to CBS. He also began hosting the HBO sports show called Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which has won 32 Emmy awards and still airs today.
Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin, became the first woman and the first Black woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On January 3, 1987, the icon opened the path for a long line of female artists to walk in her footsteps, including Black female performers like Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Tina Turner. At just 16 years old, Franklin joined the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on tour, singing gospel at civil rights rallies across the country, and in 1968, she sang the gospel classic, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at Dr. King’s funeral.
Mary Van Brittan Brown: Every 13 seconds, a home burglary takes place. That’s four burglaries a minute and nearly 6,000 a day, but thanks to Black inventor Mary Van Brittan Brown, home security systems try to prevent break-ins from happening. After spending many nights alone at home in Queens, New York, Brown felt unsafe with crime rates extremely high and police officers back then, not always responding to calls in her neighborhood. In 1966, Brown invented the first security system, using a camera that slides into and looks through peepholes in the door with a front view popping up on a monitor. She later added other features like a microphone and a button to unlock the door. Brown and her husband were awarded a patent for the system three years later in 1969.
Martha Jones: Whether you steam it on the stove or throw it on the grill, if you like corn, it’s possible Black inventor Martha Jones is the one helping it reach your table. Martha Jones is believed to be the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent in 1868 for her improvement to the “Corn Husker, Sheller.” Her invention made it possible to husk, shell, cut and separate corn all in one step. Jones’ operation allowed for the advancement in automatic agricultural processes farmers use today. It’s possible that there were other Black female inventors of patents before Jones, who’d filed in the name of someone else since many Black people were placed under economic and educational limits under the U.S. Patent Law during the 18th and 19th centuries. Jones also faced gender-gap challenges, as it was 47 years before her invention when Thomas Jennings became the first Black man to receive a U.S. patent in 1821.
William H. Richardson: Some people like to think there are less crying babies in the world today, thanks to Black inventor William H. Richardson. He was born January 5th, 1890 in Baltimore, Maryland, and in June of 1889, Richardson made a huge improvement to the baby carriage. He decided to create a carriage, or what we call a stroller today, to be shaped more like a symmetrical basket, rather than a shell, as it was back then. This new design made it easier for parents and nannies to move the carriage around 360 degrees, compared to only 90 degrees before. The big part of Richardson’s change to the baby carriage is that it was now reversible, making it possible to have anyone pushing the baby face them instead of facing in the opposite direction. Because of Richardson, baby carriages and strollers became more affordable, and in turn, gave middle class families the ability to buy them during the 1900s.
Alexander Miles: It’s because of black inventor Alexander Miles that we have an option to take the elevator. After witnessing his daughter almost fall down an elevator shaft in 1887, he came up with a solution. Miles designed a safer elevator with doors that opened and closed automatically. Before Miles’ new invention, people had to manually open and close elevator doors which was complicated and very dangerous at times. Many accidents happened before Miles’ change because if people forgot to close the shaft doors, passengers would fall down into the shaft as they stepped into the elevator. The elevators we ride today still feature automatic shaft doors similar to the invention Miles patented back in 1887.
George Flippin: The next time you’re yelling, “Go big red” during a husker game, you might want to think about George Flippin who made it possible for many of those players you see on the field today. From 1891 to 1894 Flippin attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln becoming the first black athlete at UNL. Flippin played as a half-back, more commonly known as a running back for the Huskers, and also played baseball, did shot-put and wrestled for the university. Flippin attended medical school in Illinois, practiced medicine in Arkansas and later opened the first hospital in Stromsburg, Nebraska. As a doctor, Flippin is credited for saving the lives of many, especially during the state’s most severe outbreak of polio during 1907. Despite his breakthroughs Flippin often faced many challenges as a Black man here in Nebraska and filed the state’s first civil rights lawsuit after a restaurant in York refused to serve him and his wife. In 1974 Flippin was inducted into the Nebraska football hall of fame as the first Black player to be inducted.
Alfred Cralle: Because of Black inventor Alfred Cralle, you can now have as much ice cream as your heart desires. Cralle had always been interested in mechanics and in 1897 he invented the ice cream scoop. The idea came to Cralle while he was working at a hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He noticed ice cream servers having difficulty putting the sweet treat into cones - with it sticking to spoons and ladles. Cralle called the new invention “an ice cream mold and disher” which at the time was described as being durable, effective and inexpensive. The new ice cream scoop was able to be used with only one hand and could mold ice cream into any shape like a cone or mound. Since many Black Americans were never recognized for their inventions back then, Cralle did not receive any profit for his ice cream scoop.
Dr. Rodney Wead: Today there are more than 40 Black-owned credit unions and banks across the U.S., the first one here in Nebraska was opened by Dr. Rodney Wead. In 1973, Dr. Wead founded “The Community Bank of Nebraska” over in Omaha in an area on 52nd street, now named Rodney S. Wead Street. Four years before that Dr. Wead opened the “Franklin Community Credit Union” which was the first one in the state offering loans to low-income residents. In 1958, Dr. Wead worked at the Nebraska psychiatric institute as an educational therapist teaching children battling with mental illness. Growing up near Northside Omaha, as a young boy Dr. Wead worked for the “Omaha Star” which was a prominent Black newspaper. Not only has Dr. Wead contributed to Nebraska’s financial institutions, in 1970 he spear-headed the first Black-owned radio station in our state KOWH in Omaha. Adding on to all of Dr. Wead’s accomplishments, he also over-saw 23 social service projects including several housing programs and programs for women in prison.
Senator JoAnn Maxey: Breaking new ground in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun became the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. Senator. But before her, came JoAnn Maxey, who was the first Black woman to serve as Senator right here in Nebraska. Senator Maxey held her position representing District 46 here in Lincoln from 1977 to 1979. Adding onto Lincoln’s history, Senator Maxey also became the first Black person elected to Lincoln’s Board of Education. She founded programs for at-risk students, kids in special education and expanded opportunities for girls in sports. Maxey was a strong advocate for Lincoln’s Malone Center and is also who Maxey Elementary School in Lincoln is named after. Maxey studied at three different colleges, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was also a member of the League of Women Voters, The Black Women’s Caucus and the NAACP.
Charles Drew: Many of us have probably donated to the Nebraska Community Blood Bank and thanks to Black inventor Dr. Charles Drew, that blood is always available. During WWII, in the 1930s and 40s, Drew was a doctor researching with the American Red Cross on blood transfusions when he developed the first large-scale blood bank. Dr. Drew being credited for also inventing the refrigerated blood mobiles, made it possible for blood to be stored and transported safely. This first blood bank was established at Columbia University where Dr. Drew also became the first Black person to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree. Dr. Drew was one of the only Black doctors working during the time when blood donations were still separated by race. Dr. Drew resigned from working with the American Red Cross after they continued their policy on separating blood donations based on race. It wasn’t until 1950 when the Red Cross stopped this practice recognizing all blood as equal.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson: Nobody likes answering a call from an unknown number especially when you’re already on the phone with someone else. It was Black inventor Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson who solved this issue. While working at AT&T in the 1970s Dr. Jackson invented the call waiting and caller ID features. Dr. Jackson’s developments allow us to screen known, unknown or unwanted phone calls. Dr. Jackson was able to invent these two features while she conducted research in physics at AT&T Bell Labs. Not only is Dr. Jackson an inventor, she’s also the first Black woman to receive a Doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first Black woman to serve as President of a top-ranked research university. Credit can also be given to Dr. Jackson for creating the portable fax machine and touch-tone telephones. Dr. Jackson is a strong advocate of diversity, not only in technology and the sciences, but also pushes for diversity on corporate levels and in boardrooms.
Lyda Newman: In the 19th and 20th centuries, Black women played a pivotal role in developing hair care products. you may have heard of women like Madame C.J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner, but what about Black hair dresser Lyda Newman? While she didn’t invent the hairbrush, Newman’s improvements to it in 1898 changed hair care forever, being the first one made with synthetic bristles. Newman’s new hairbrush allowed ventilation and was designed to catch excess hair and provide a space for it to go. Using the evenly spaced bristles, hair build-up would collect in the back of the brush and could be cleaned by emptying the compartment and dumping it out. Her hairbrush is said to have been simple, yet durable and was very effective in keeping good hair hygiene. Throughout her life, Newman also fought for women’s rights to vote and worked with activists of the Woman Suffrage Party.
Phillip Downing: The U.S. Postal Service processes more than 472-million pieces of mail everyday and since Black inventor Phillip Downing’s patent in 1891, that’s become much easier. Downing created the mailbox, similar to what we use today with its secure, hinged door to drop letters inside which prevents rain or snow from damaging the mail. Before Downing’s invention, people typically had to travel to the post office to send mail and Downing made it possible to do it closer to someone’s home. More than 25-years after that invention, Downing came up with the roller you use to seal envelopes. His roller had a small water tank attached to it allowing you to quickly seal your letter. Before his death in 1934, Downing went on to receive five patents in total including one that made operating street railway switches automatically.
Mary Davidson Kenner: For some this may be a taboo topic but it’s a fact of life, women go through cycles each month and if it weren’t for Black inventor Mary Davidson Kenner the process would be even harder. In 1957 Kenner filed for her very first patent at 18-years-old: a belt for sanitary napkins. This coming before the modern day disposable pad and at a time when women were still using uncomfortable and unsanitary cloths and rags during that time of the month. Kenner’s idea featured an adjustable belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket built inside - keeping pads in place allowing women the freedom to leave home during their period. It took Kenner 30 years after she first created the idea to receive a patent as she faced racial and gender discrimination after a company wanted to discuss her product but dropped out after finding out she was a Black woman. Kenner eventually filed five patents during her life including the toilet-tissue holder and a special pocket to store items on walkers or wheelchairs.
George T. Sampson: It’s believed that an average American household washes around 300 loads of laundry every year. Even though most of us still dread this chore Black inventor George T. Sampson made it much easier for us to do. In 1892 Sampson developed and patented America’s first automatic clothes dryer. Before Sampson’s improvement people had to dry clothes over an open flame and complained their clothes smelled like smoke and even stained them with soot. Sampson’s drying process was essentially used as a ventilator - made with frames instead of barrels eliminating the need to use an open flame. Sampson made it possible for clothes to dry quickly and people no longer had to worry about their items catching on fire or the weather messing up their clean clothes. Sampson also received a patent for a sled propeller in 1885 which functioned well in the snow. Sampson’s invention lead to electrical clothes dryers showing up around 1915 and the first fully-automatic one popping up in 1938.
Jerry Lawson: Before systems like Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation there was Fair-Child Channel “F” created by Black inventor Jerry Lawson. In 1976, Lawson literally “changed the game” with his first home video game console system with interchangeable game cartridges. Using a micro-processor was something early games like the first Atari and other systems didn’t use. Lawson’s “Channel F” system had the ability to play an unlimited number of games including hockey, tennis, black-jack and a maze game which came out before PAC-MAN. Lawson also founded his own video game company called Videosoft which created games for Atari and produced some of the first 3-D games video games. Lawson also goes down in history as one of the only Black engineers in the industry during that time and became one without a college degree.
Dr. James West: Journalists use microphones every day and whether you’re into karaoke or hopping on a zoom call you likely use them quite often, too. It’s possible in thanks to Black co-inventor Dr. James West. While working at Bell Labs in 1960, Dr. West helped create a more sensitive, compact mic with his colleague. Dr. West invented the foil electret mic which was less expensive than typical mics used back then. In 1968 the new mic began being used in things like hearing aids, tape recorders, phones and even baby monitors. Dr. West’s love for mechanics started when he was a child, as he was always interested in how things worked and found himself taking appliances apart. Dr. West’s device is now used in 90-percent of all microphones. He also has a total of more than 250 patents and became a research professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Jane Bolin: There are hundreds of judges in the U.S. between the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, District Courts and the Court of International Trade. Since 1789, 229 judges have been Black and Jane Bolin is the one who started it all for women. In 1939, at 31-years-old, Bolin became the country’s first Black female judge and was assigned to family court. During that time, Bolin advocated for children and fought against racial discrimination changing policies like probation officer assignments being based on skin-color. Before this achievement Bolin also became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from Yale University in 1931. Bolin served 3 ten-year terms as a judge while also serving on the board of the NAACP. Because of the path she carved 17 other Black women carried on Bolin’s legacy when in 2019 they were all historically sworn in as judges in Harris County, Texas.
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