Looking Back, Looking Forward to Celebrate and Honor
February 04, 2013
This month is a time for reflection, recognition, and empowerment. It’s a time to honor the known and unknown heroes who endured and overcame insurmountable odds to get us where we are now. In February, we celebrate the men, women, and children who persisted through unfathomable struggles, but we do so as if it is history only come and gone. It is not merely history we celebrate but culture and progress, as well.
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading a certain book for my natural sciences class. It has been one of the most insightful, fun, and fascinating reads since I started my journey through college. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention discusses the shinning achievements of Benjamin Banneker, Granville T. Woods, George Washington Carver, and many more inspirational figures of our American history.
Semis. I don’t like them. I don’t like to be any were near them. But if it hadn’t been for Granville T. Woods, I would probably not drive at all. He invented the air brake system that semis use today. He also invented a safety cutoff for electric circuits, an electric-powered incubator, a new battery, and many other great electrical inventions we enjoy today. Ironically, according to the Facts on File biography of this inventor, he was known as the "black Edison." He and Edison had a few less-than-desirous run-ins during their lives.
Three-hundred inventions related to peanut! You know the gentleman, George Washington Carver. So, do you know why one man would spend so much time coming up with inventions from a peanut? It came from his research to reinvigorate the nutrient depleted soil of the South. Peanuts, specifically, boost the nitrogen content of soil, making it more fertile for farming. However, no one wanted to use the peanut because it was viewed as a weed—so farmers had trouble selling it. What did Carver do? His genius turned the crop into a food products—peanut butter, milk, cheese, shampoo, ink, and wood stains—making the peanut marketable and valuable. He also founded a "Movable School" to travel around the country educating farmers—and this idea of a moveable school was later duplicated in China and India in the 1950s and 1960s.
You’ve probably heard of Benjamin Franklin. But have you heard of Benjamin Banneker? He created a wooden chiming clock—something quite rare in the Baltimore country in the mid-1700s where he was born. He’d only seen a sun dial and a pocket watch before he created his own, and his ability to calculate the increase in size and the number of teeth on the cogs needed to track time accurately demonstrates his genius at an early age.
Do you know where the phrase "the real McCoy" comes from? It arose from Elijah McCoy, who invented a lubricating system for steam engines saving money and more importantly saving lives. Before his system, trains would have to stop quite often to lubricate all of their moving parts—a person did this all by hand and sometimes if the conductor did not know the workers were not on board, the train would start moving again, including those parts they were lubricating, and seriously harm or kill him. The automated system helped the lubrication process happen while the train was moving and without the endangerment of human lives. Now, the phrase comes from railroaders who were worried they were purchasing an imitation of Elijah McCoy’s lubrication system—an imitation would usually prove faulty. Hence, they would ask, "Is this the real McCoy?"
I’m sure we’ve all heard of this awesome basketball team—that’s right the Harlem Globetrotters! They got their start in 1926 and actually were grouped together in Chicago, not Harlem. Their name change came from a promoter’s attempt to make them more interesting in the entertainment world. So why do they have such a playful attitude in their game plans? It’s because they were so awesome, they needed a way to keep their scores low enough to keep fans interested in the games. However, their clowning around on the court wasn’t just them being silly; it helped them survive in a racially suppressive society. As the clowning around helped keep scores down, it also helped lighten the atmosphere, too.
The struggles of these people and countless others stand as a testament to the legacy they left behind—for us to study and learn from, as well to grow from. While we celebrate this month as Black History month, we are celebrating our community's history. Through the good moments that make us proud and the moments that call for silent reverie, it is our past that has shaped us, while the actions we take today define us. It is knowledge that these people sought, and through knowledge and understanding, they overcame the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their path.