Notables in Black History: Inventors, intellectuals, influencers and more

Notables in Black History: Inventors, intellectuals, influencers and more

American history resonates with the names of great African American men and women. Here are 14 men and women who made their mark on history — in many cases as the first Black Americans to succeed in their chosen fields. 

The actress who played Aunt Jemima was a Hartford native 

From 1946 to 1964, Gwen Reed, an actress, an advocate for childhood literacy and a theater director, played the role of Aunt Jemima, the face of the Quaker Oats Company products. Reed traveled to promote the brand at pancake festivals, state fairs, school assemblies and grocery stores, but her real name was never revealed. While playing the role of Aunt Jemima (in 1951), Reed became the director of the Hartford Community Players. She directed “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Rain” and “Purlie Victorious.”  — CT Post

Connecticut freedman wrote one of the first examples of African American literature 

In his autobiography that was published in 1798 in New London, Venture Smith, a captured slave, documented his life. He shared how he overcame slavery, became a businessman, freed his family and acquired more than 130 acres of land in Connecticut. This was one of the earliest examples of African-American literature. Smith, a child of a Guinean prince, ended up marrying another slave, Meg, in 1753, and together they had three children. — CT Post

A singer who lived in Danbury was the first African American to sing at the Met

On Jan. 7, 1955, Marian Anderson, who lived on a farm in Danbury, became the first African American to sing as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Anderson then became a goodwill ambassador for the United States and a delegate to the United Nations in September 1958. As a result, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and she received many other honorary honors, such as the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. — CT Post and NPR

Inspiration of modern home security systems

Mary Van Brittan Brown, an African American nurse from Queens, New York, developed a home security system that has since inspired modern home security systems that are used today. She created this invention as a result of the risks her home faced due to the crime rates in her neighborhood. Her security system allowed her to know who came to her home and gave her the opportunity to contact the authorities quickly. —

The invention of the foil electret microphone

Dr. James E. West, an African American inventor, helped develop a more sensitive and compact microphone at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1960s. He worked with his colleague Gerhard Sessler on this invention. This foil electret microphone was less expensive to make than other condenser microphones and was licensed in 1964. By 1968, the microphone was universally produced and used in devices such as telephones, baby monitors, hearing aids and tape recorders. Now, about 90% of the microphones are based on this invention. —

Landmark technology inventions at IBM were developed with the help of Mark Dean 

As a part of a team of 12 that worked at IBM, Mark Dean, a Black inventor and engineer, helped create the first IBM PC in 1981. Later on, Dean also helped develop the color monitor and led his team in the invention of the first gigahertz processor. This chip was built in 1999 and allowed for PCs to have faster and higher processing rates. Not only that, this piece of technology allowed for the PC to do a billion calculations a second. —

America’s first Black diplomat was from Derby  

In 1869, 36-year-old Ebenezer Bassett was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, becoming the country's first African American diplomat. Bassett was also the first black man to graduate from Connecticut Normal School — now known as Central Connecticut State University. After receiving his diploma, he taught at Whiting School in New Haven, befriending the legendary abolitionist Frederic Douglass. Later, Bassett became the principal of Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth. —

Yale’s first Black alumnus

In 1874, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African American to graduate of Yale University. Just two years later, Bouchet completed his dissertation, becoming the first African American in the nation to earn a Ph.D. as well as the sixth American of any race to earn a Ph.D. in physics. Despite his excellent credentials and extraordinary gifts, Bouchet was never offered a faculty position and spent most of his career teaching science to high school students. —

A New Haven developer of the modern ironing board

In the 1890s, an African American dressmaker was awarded a patent for her improved ironing board with collapsible legs. Her name was Sarah Boone. She was born into slavery in North Carolina but migrated to New Haven using a network closely linked to the Underground Railroad. In her design, Boone expanded upon the original ironing board, which was essentially a horizontal wooden block. With Boone’s additions, the improved board featured a narrower and curved design, making it easier to iron garments, particularly women’s clothing. —

Bridgeport inventor of the longer-lasting light bulb 

While Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, a black member of his research team, Lewis Latimer, improved Edison’s original design. Latimer increased the life span and practicality of light bulbs, which had previously died after just a few days. Latimer also worked closely with telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. In 1880, after relocating to Bridgeport, Latimer was hired to work in the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., which was owned by Edison's competitor, Hiram Maxim. —

A New Haven-born warrior for justice

Constance Baker Motley was a longtime Connecticut resident and a trailblazer for women of color. In 1946, she became the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia University School of Law. She also was the first African American to serve as a New York state senator and the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. —

Inventor of the automatic elevator doors

African American inventor Alexander Miles was born in 1838 in Minnesota and is best known for being awarded a patent for an automatically opening and closing elevator door design. Before Miles’ invention in 1887, people had to manually shut both the shaft and elevator doors before riding. Forgetting to do so led to multiple accidents as people fell down elevator shafts. —

Inventor of the three-position traffic signal

Garrett Morgan was one of the country’s most successful African American inventors. In 1923 he came up with the device that led to the modern three-way traffic lights. He saw that existing mechanical stop-and-go signals were dangerous since they had no caution signal to buffer traffic flow. So, he patented a three-armed signal. Morgan also invented a revamped sewing machine, a hair-straightening product, and a gas mask. —

Revolutionizer of refrigeration industry

Frederick McKinley Jones was a self-taught, African American engineer. He also was an inventor, entrepreneur, winner of the National Medal of Technology, and an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Jones patented more than 60 inventions in his lifetime. While more than 40 of those patents were in the field of refrigeration, Jones is most famous for inventing an automatic refrigeration system that’s used to refrigerate goods on trucks and railroad cars. — 

Throughout the month, read stories about the people, past and present, who contribute to our community life, and learn about local Black history and how it influences us today.

With local school, politics and coronavirus news being more important now than ever, please help our newsroom deliver the coverage you deserve. Please support Local news.

More From This Section

Latest Videos