Happy Black History Month! Black History Month, the brainchild of historian, author, and journalist Carter G. Woodson, is a time to celebrate the important contributions that many African Americans have made to U.S. history. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X are some of the most well-known African American figures, and we hear about them often during Black History Month. Yet there are countless unsung black heroes who are just as invaluable.
The goal of this post is to introduce you to a few of these people so that you can share their stories with your students.
Crum was the inventor of the potato chip—and what student doesn’t like potato chips? In 1853, he worked as a chef at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Saratoga Lake, New York. After a customer complained about their french-fried potatoes being too thick, he had the idea to cut the potatoes thin, fry them in oil, and season them with salt. Crum’s “Saratoga chips” became one of the lodge’s most popular appetizers and are now one of America’s favorite snacks. Why not enjoy some chips while sharing Crum’s story with your students?
Selma Burke, PhD:
Burke was an acclaimed sculptor and winner of the 1943 fine arts competition for the District of Columbia for a profile she’d done of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. You can see this piece of her artwork today, as it was adapted for use on the United States dime.
Thomas L. Jennings:
In 1821, Jennings was the first African American to receive a patent for his discovery of a dry-cleaning process called dry-scouring. Jennings’ patent was extraordinary because at that time, most African Americans were slaves and the patent laws didn’t allow slaves to patent their own inventions. However, although Jennings was black, he was a freeman and was able to gain sole rights to his invention and profit from it. He used the income earned from the patent to purchase relatives out of slavery and support abolitionist causes.
Dr. Patricia Bath:
Bath was the first African American woman physician to receive a patent for a medical invention. In 1986 she discovered a new technique and invented a new device for cataract surgery known as laserphaco. Previously, in 1973, Bath had been the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States, and in 1983 she was the first woman ophthalmologist to be appointed to the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Born in 1957, Dean is an accomplished engineer and computer scientist. He began working at IBM in 1980, and was instrumental in the development of the personal computer. Dean aided in the development of a number of technologies for IBM, including the first gigahertz chip and the color PC monitor. He holds three of the company’s original nine patents. His inventions have changed the way people work and communicate around the world.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson:
Jackson is the first African American woman to have earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jackson’s groundbreaking research enabled others to invent solar cells, fiber optic cables, the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Her accomplishments also include chairing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and cochairing President Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
These are just a few past and present African American unsung heroes who have greatly contributed to our great United States. In the words of Gerald Ford, we should “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” I say that we should seize the opportunity to learn not just in February but also anytime we can. The more you know, the more you grow!