Black Women's History
On the Bright Side
February 29, 2020
February is Black History Month, and March is Women's History Month. Since this issue of The Loop straddles both months, I'm going to talk about Black Women in History.
Women in general don't often get credit where credit is due, especially regarding inventions and innovations that change all of our lives for the better, and yet they have been active and changing things for centuries ... and they continue today. Here is a small sampling of contributions by black women throughout history:
Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker) was a Philanthropist and entrepreneur born to former slaves and sharecroppers and orphaned at just 7 years old. She is best known for inventing an innovative line of African American hair care products in 1905 which made her the first American female of any race to become a self-made millionaire. This historic business is still in business today.
Also a New York City resident and full-time nurse, Marie Van Brittan Brown created an early version of the modern home security system. Feeling unsafe in her high-crime neighborhood, she rigged a motorized camera to record her home entryway and project images onto a TV monitor. Her set up also included a two-way microphone (to communicate with visitors without opening the door) and a panic button to notify police of any potential emergency. She received a patent for her closed-circuit security system in December 1969.
Dr. Patricia Bath became the first female African American medical doctor to receive a medical patent when she invented a laser cataract treatment device in 1986. Bath was also the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. The co-founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness patented her invention in 1988.
Dr. Shirley Jackson's work led to the development of and innovations for touch-tone phones, portable fax machines and the fiber optic cables that make your long-distance phone calls come in crystal clear. Jackson was the first black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT, the first black female president of a major technological institute, and she was the first black woman appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Her list of achievements, awards and appointments goes on and on.
In 1919 Alice H. Parker patented a central heating furnace design that made use of natural gas for the first time to keep homes warm and toasty. Many homes today still employ a similar forced air heating system for which her idea was a precursor.
In the 1930s and '40s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first people to combine gospel music with melody-driven urban blues, traditional folk and a unique pulsating swing style, thus her musical style is considered one of the first definite precursors of rock 'n' roll. Many music legends, including Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry were influenced by Tharpe's unique musical style, yet somehow her name is often left out when people talk about the history of rock 'n' roll.
Maya Angelou, perhaps best known these days as a national poet laureate (and one who recited a poem at President Clinton's inauguration), was also an accomplished actress (Broadway) and singer as well as an author of some 36 books ("I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings".) What may not be known about her is that she was raped at age 7 by her mother's boyfriend (who was later killed by her uncles), and was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to speak for about five years. Aren't we lucky she eventually found her voice?
Bridget "Biddy" Mason didn't invent the city of Los Angeles, but she did help establish its downtown. Born a slave who eventually moved to California with her owner's family, Mason freed herself through the courts when she discovered slavery was illegal in her new state. Working hard as a nurse and a midwife, she saved enough money to buy 10 acres of property (for $250) where she built rentals, including larger commercial properties. That land is now the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
So many people, of so many genders and colors and creeds, have contributed to the things we use and the life we lead and enjoy today. But Black History Month and Women's History Month offer a couple of great reminders of those people who have been forgotten or neglected by history in general, and a great reminder to keep learning about the people who have come before us and shaped our very lives today.
© Marilda Mel White. Mel is a local writer/photographer and co-owner of Tehachapi Treasure Trove who has been looking on the bright side for various publications since 1996. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.