Inventing against the odds
Latest test: Spark young blacks' passion for science
By Greg Botelho
(CNN) -- Take a bite out of your peanut butter sandwich, stop at the traffic signal, then turn left onto Pennsylvania Avenue as you explore Washington, D.C.
And don't forget to thank the African-American inventors -- specifically George Washington Carver (who created dozens of peanut-related products), Garrett Morgan (the man behind the modern stop light) and Benjamin Banneker (mathematician, astronomer and key architect of the nation's capital) -- who made it possible.
These men, and their innovations, aren't the only ones deserving of gratitude. From hands-on creations like pencil sharpeners and golf tees, to less tangible but no less important advancements such as refining sugar and storing blood, black inventors have profoundly impacted our day-to-day lives.
That said, it has not been easy for black innovators. Slaves were considered property, not free people who could create and market inventions. Even given a post-Civil War boom of African Americans seeking patents, blacks have long struggled to get jobs, education and recognition.
Today, despite great progress during the civil rights movement, African Americans remain in the minority -- even relative to the percentage of blacks in the overall population -- in terms of representation and opportunity in scientific and technological fields.
Delano White, chair of the National Society of Black Engineers, says in college and graduate-level science classes, it is not uncommon for only 10 of 500 students to be African Americans. He says the problem is rooted in black society as well as the greater American society, citing studies showing drops in the number of black engineers -- a trend that NSBE, with its 25,000 members, attributes to declining interest in science and math among young African Americans.
"It's not cool to be smart -- when you are labeled smart, you pretty much become an outcast," says White, an engineer in Detroit and graduate student at the University of Michigan in Dearborn. "When they are smart, they don't see themselves as being anything special. But that is special."
The Gullah people, mainly escaped slaves and free blacks, lived isolated from other Americans for centuries off the South Carolina coast. With an essentially West African culture, the Gullah created distinctive agricultural tools, containers and foods, including varieties of rice unique to North America.
The Gullah are the exception that proves the rule, says Georgia Tech professor Kavita Philip, in that they could innovate and craft a society absent the constraints -- social, economic and otherwise -- that historically have hampered blacks in the wider American society.
Those restraints were no more pronounced than in the first several centuries after Europeans -- and with them, enslaved blacks -- arrived in the New World. Slaves not only did not have the schooling and resources to invent and innovate, but government rulings decreed that they could not patent their inventions, nor could their masters.
"Sharing those inventions [was difficult]," says Portia James, an expert on black innovators and curator of the Anacostia Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's black history center. "There were a whole different set of strategies and experiences for black inventors [compared to] white inventors."
The lack of recognition did not equate to a lack of ingenuity. Blacks exercised their innovative impulses, experimenting with gadgets and technology in hopes of improving their lot, says Philip, who teaches courses on technology and race. In fact, early African Americans were often on the front lines of invention -- working in the fields, workshops and homes where problems, and solutions, arose.
Inventions by Elijah McCoy and Granville Woods, for instance, revolutionized the railroad industry, which had an abundance of black laborers, improving locomotive lubrication and steam valves and boilers. Henry Blair was among the first of many African Americans to obtain a patent for agricultural innovations, advances that included products such as corn and cotton planters and food packaging techniques.
And Sarah Bleedlove (a.k.a. C.J. Walker) made a fortune in cosmetics, one of numerous black women to contribute in the fields of medicine, beauty and home economics with innovations such as the medicine tray, curling iron and ironing board.
"The workers were the ones to expose the problem, experiment and come up with a solution," says James. "Sometimes it's a matter of jerry-rigging something, and it actually works so well that it becomes a model."
Yet for every African American who earned and profited from a patent, many more did not -- and even more never had a chance, given educational and employment barriers. Institutional barriers for black innovators became more amplified in the 20th century, when an increasing number of inventions came out of well-heeled educational institutions and corporations.
"That level of invention takes place in places where blacks were not hired [or enrolled]," says James. "They could not actually be ... part of a team of inventors until well after integration."
Wanted: Innovative role models
President Thomas Jefferson recognized the smarts and skill of mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker, naming him to replace architect Pierre L'Enfant and lay out the nation's new capital, Washington, D.C. Carver was not only the prototype African-American inventor, building and mobilizing resources at Tuskegee Institute, but the prototype modern American inventor in how he organized his lab and produced a prolific list of innovations, says Philip.
Black scientists and innovators continue to make their mark today. Several African Americans, such as Anna McGowan, have headed major projects at NASA; others, like Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist working with the oil industry, are pioneers in the business world. Mark Dean earned induction to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for, with IBM colleague Dennis Moelher, coming up with the system that allows computers to communicate with printers and other servers, paving the way for the Internet.
According to White, such people are essential to spark young African-Americans' pursuit of science, technology and invention. Role models don't have to be real to be effective: White says young African Americans' interest in engineering soared during the heyday of Dwayne Wayne, an engineering student on the 1980s and early 1990s television sitcom, "A Different World."
"It's not necessarily the people that are in the history books, but the people you see everyday that can motivate you," says White.
Today, African Americans still face major disadvantages. Only 27.7 percent of black homes (versus 70.1 percent of white homes) have Internet access, according to a 1998 Department of Commerce study. After showing minor improvements from 1971 to 1990, African-American students' mathematics scores -- and the gap between black and white scores -- have stabilized or deteriorated in the past decade, according to a 2000 Department of Education report.
Another challenge, experts say, is changing how young blacks view mathematics, science and academics. Craig Werner, African-American studies professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says that the commercial windfall of black individuals -- be it in sports, music or business -- should not overshadow larger problems in black society.
"Individual black people now are given a degree of recognition that was unthinkable prior to the civil rights movement. They also benefit financially, on an individual basis," he says. "But the irony of that is that it serves to render the larger part of the community more invisible."
In a world where many young African Americans dream of emulating the success of athletes and musicians, White believes there is still a place for scientific examination and innovation in black society. As in the past, it may not be easy or glamorous, but it is worthwhile.
"They see 'MTV Cribs', they see rappers and athletes with all these nice things," says White. "We [tell them] if you learn math and science, you can get those things... Math and science serve as gateway skills. When people understand that, they can get somewhere."