History, as taught in schools, is mostly written by white men. In the last 75 years the historical dialogue has grown to include the voices of folks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Francis Berry, Richard Wright, August Wilson, Spike Lee, Alice Walker and Trevor Noah, to name a few.
The US is ranked as the most powerful country in the world. That ranking did not happen by accident. It is the rebellious spirit of our forefathers, the ingenuity of great thinkers, inventors, businesspeople, innovators and hard workers that helped make it great.
Here is a list of ten developments that would not be possible without black American thinkers, innovators and physical laborers.
Born a free man in 1807, Henry Blair was the second African American to be issued a United States patent. Despite being illiterate and uneducated, he was a successful farmer who patented two inventions: a corn planter and a cotton planter. Both of his inventions greatly increased efficiency on the farm by limiting labor and time.
Black slaves literally built, with their hands, the White House; Monticello; early Wall Street; Chapel Hill buildings; and pretty much any other notable structure in the South or the Eastern Seaboard before 1861.
Onesimus, an African slave, was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706. Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune.
Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.
Cowboys played an important role in the settling of the west. Ranching was a big industry and cowboys helped to run the ranches. They herded cattle, repaired fences and buildings, and took care of the horses.
Probably no one realizes this, but one in four cowboys was black, despite the stories told in popular books and movies. In fact, it’s believed that the real “Lone Ranger” was inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves. Reeves was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse.
Fighting in the Civil War
The movie “Glory, ” starring Denzel Washington shed light on all the underappreciated heroes of the first black company fighting in the American Civil War. These soldiers were forced to deal with the prejudices of both the enemy (who had orders to kill commanding officers of blacks), and of their own fellow officers.
Black veterans remain disenfranchised and underappreciated today. For more on how to reach out to make a difference see our Veteran’s Day blog post.
If you have not read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, get yourself over to Barnes and Noble (if you can find one!) or add this right now to your Audible cue. This black American woman, an unknowing donor, had cells removed from her during a hospital stay that would revolutionize medicine.
The story of Henrietta and her family is totally amazing—they have impacted science and anyone who works or benefits from the use of cellular research. That means just about every single person is connected to Henrietta in one way or another.
Marching On Selma
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., led hundreds of Americans on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In the fight to secure voting rights for African Americans and other minorities across the country, the peaceful march was met with brutal violence.
Eventually, the march went on unimpeded — and the echoes of its significance reverberated so loudly in Washington, D.C., that Congress passed the historic Voting Rights Act.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC). Their impressive performance in WWII earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.
Oprah Winfrey’s Empire
Oprah came from impoverished roots in Mississippi to eventually become an entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist worth 2.7 billion dollars.
With her iconic TV show and films such as The Color Purple, Oprah has changed perceptions of African Americans, and inspired millions as a force to be reckoned with, and a role model for people of color who come from poverty and dream of making something of their life.
The legacy of Barack and Michelle Obama
When Barak and Michelle Obama walked into the White House in January, 2009 it was a miraculous moment in time for black Americans. The legacy that Barack and Michelle left includes a reformed healthcare system, and passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that jolted life back into an economy on the brink of failure.
It is inspiring that more films like Hidden Figures and Seven Years a Slave are being made. These films are not always easy to watch, but as Cornel West has said, “You must let suffering speak, if you want to hear the truth.”
Hopefully the generations coming up will have a more inclusive understanding of all those that came before them to see that people of every race, shape and color came together to make this country the force that it is today.