This year has been one for the books. A year that no one would do over. For Black and brown Americans, it has exposed much. We have been hit on all sides.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed what we’ve always known. Health disparities in communities of color are unacceptable. Killings of Black citizens has laid bare the racism that exists in this country’s policing policies. The inequity in the economic structure is front and center, as the rate of food insecurity increased from 35 million to over 50 million.
We are familiar with the saying that when White America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia. It is not because we have inherently weaker immune systems or that we are more reckless about our health. This system was intentionally enacted. A system that deliberately marginalized Black people ever since we were brought to these shores. A cruel and inhumane idea that Black people are less than.
A belief so ingrained in the fabric of this country that when Black people fight against it, we become the problem. Case and point, the Black Lives Matter Movement started in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Today BLM is an international social movement dedicated to fighting racism and anti-Black violence. However, in this country, BLM has dealt with unprecedented vitriol, even being labeled a terrorist organization by many.
Another glaring example is watching the Republican Party stand silently by while the president, who lost an election, attempts to disenfranchise the vote of hundreds of thousands of African Americans.
That, too, is not new.
In July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 men from the 13 colonies. The second sentence in that document has been lifted as the moral standard of what makes America, America. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Of the 56 signers, 41 were enslavers, and it was clear they did not believe those words applied to the Black people they had forced to these shores. For three of the most famous, the following documented statements are proof of how they felt about African Americans.
In a 1751 essay written by Benjamin Franklin entitled, “Observation concerning the increase of Mankind,” he stated, “Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and tawney’s, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.” Franklin was concerned even back then; the proportionality of purely white people was very small.
In notes from the State of Virginia of 1785, the following words are attributed to Thomas Jefferson. “I advanced it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time or circumstances are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.”
Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, during a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, said the following, “There is a physical difference between the white and Black races, which I believe will
forever forbid the two races living together. While they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
In contrast to these racist assessments of African Americans, the truth of who we are is vastly different. Marianne Williams wrote in the book, A return to love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
I maintain that what is even more true, that white people don’t really believe that Black people are inferior. They fear, if we are allowed equal and equitable opportunity, just how powerful we are.
Benjamin Banneker was born free in 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. His father, previously enslaved bought his freedom. Banneker’s grandfather had been a member of a royal family in Africa.
Banneker attended school for a short time but was largely self-taught. At fifteen, he invented an irrigation system. At 21, Banneker invented the first fully functional clock in the United States. His knowledge of astronomy led him to develop a series of almanacs. Banneker assisted in the survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia. He was the first great African American inventor.
Thomas Jennings was born free in 1791 in New York City. He was the first African American to receive a patent in 1821 for his discovery of a process called duty-scouring, the fore-runner to today’s dry-cleaning service. A passionate abolitionist, Jennings used his income from his inventions to free the rest of his family from slavery and fund abolitionist causes.
Henry Blair was born in 1807 in Glen Ross, Maryland. Little is known regarding Blair’s personal life, except that he was a successful farmer and was believed to have been a free Black man. Blair was the second African American to receive a patent for two devices designed to help agricultural productivity. In 1834 he patented the corn planter and in 1836 the cotton planter.
Leonard Bailey was born in 1825 to a free family in Washington D.C. Bailey became a journey barber and owned and operated many of the barbershops in D.C. In 1883, he patented a hernia truss and bandage that was adopted by the US Army Medical Board. Bailey also invented the rapid mail stamp machine, a device to switch trains to different tracks, and in 1899 the folding bed, which was also used by the Army. In 1888 Bailey and seven other Black businessmen founded the Capitol Savings Bank in D.C.
Martha Jones was the first Black woman to receive a patent in 1868 for her improvement to the corn husker and sheller, which led to the automation of agricultural processes.
The second Black woman to receive a patent was Mary Jones DeLeon, for her invention in 1873 for a device that heated food by dry heat and steam; it was a precursor to the steam tables we use today.
Sarah Boone was born into slavery in 1832. She was freed around 1847, possibly after her marriage to James Boone, a free Black man. Sarah was a dressmaker and in 1892 received a patent for her invention of the ironing board.
Granville Woods was born free in 1856, in Columbus, Ohio. Woods left school at the age of 10 to help support his family. He later attended night school to complete his primary education. Basically, self-taught Woods was the first Black Mechanical and Electrical Engineer.
Between 1884 and his death in 1910, Woods held more than 60 patents, which included creating the grooved metal wheels for streetcars, the first telegraph service, the incubator, and the telephone transmitter, which was bought by Alexander Graham Bell.
Philip Downing was born in 1857 in Ontario, Canada. He received a patent in 1890 for inventing an electrical switch for railroads, which allowed railroad workers to supply or shut off power to trains. That design led innovators to later create electrical light switches. In 1891 he invented the street letter box, which was the precursor to the mailboxes we use today.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery around 1864 in Diamond Grove, Missouri. After slavery was abolished, George and his older brother James were raised by their former enslavers, Moses and Susan Carver. George left home at the age of 11 to pursue his education because Black children were not allowed to attend public school in Diamond Grove.
George attended a series of schools in different places before he earned his high school diploma. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894 from Iowa Agricultural College. The first Black student and after earning his Master of Science degree there in 1896, he became the first Black faculty member of Iowa Agricultural. Carver was the only African American with an advanced degree in scientific agriculture.
Booker T Washington recruited George to come teach at Tuskegee Institute. George taught local farmers about fertilization and crop rotation, which led him to discover that the local soil was perfect for growing peanuts and sweet potatoes. Carver developed hundreds of products from peanuts. Peanuts would become the second cash crop in the South after cotton because of Carver’s efforts. George Washington Carver is acknowledged as the most creative scientist of all time and all races.
The contributions made by African Americans are far greater than the few that I chose to highlight in this article. Even during the era of slavery and Jim Crow, Black people made discoveries and inventions that are still benefiting society today.
Black lives not only matter, but we are essential to the success and vitality of this nation.