Black history is American history. Through the lens of our shared history, we can see how far we’ve come and how far we must go. This month I want to recognize and highlight a few distinct chapters from our never-ending book. Black history didn’t end at the 400 years of slavery — we have accomplished so much and continue to contribute relentlessly. Every day we all benefit from Black history no matter your skin color; I am proud to say that I’m a part of that legacy.
My Great Uncle Reverend R.B. Cottonreader Jr. was a civil rights leader who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr himself and many other notable civil rights leaders. He was a force to be reckoned with and a pillar in the Black community in the South. His activism gave strength to those who felt like giving up. R.B. Jr. knew the fight would be a vigorous one, but he was a tenacious man who did not falter in the face of adversity. He attended sit-ins, boycotts, and even ran committees to facilitate these events. At the time, these events were dangerous and life threatening but I’m proud to say Reverend R.B. Cottonreader Jr. did not let that stop him from pushing for a change that not only I benefit from but also the rest of the world.
Another important figure in Black history is Dr. Charles R. Drew, a surgeon and researcher who discovered how to separate blood from plasma, allowing for longer storage time. He also discovered that long-term storage methods for blood plasma. Charles’s efforts significantly helped thousands of soldiers during World War II because preserving the blood for a longer time allowed us to transport to farther locations. A leader at the American Red Cross, he also invented the bloodmobile, he was a decorated surgeon and recipient of many prestigious awards, but even with his amazing achievements, he still had to segregate the blood based on the skin color of the person who donated it. Blood has no racial characteristics, and Charles refused for his work to be tarnished by such crude racism, so he resigned from the position and went on to work for Howard University where he was chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital. He was an ingenious man who broke boundaries and changed the medical field forever.
There are also some amazing Black women in history who have contributed in impactful ways such as Marie Van Brittan Brown. Ms. Brown invented the home security system which has since advanced in tremendous ways. She kickstarted a technological advancement that has caused property crime to fall a whopping 69% in the US since 1993. In 1969 the patent office acknowledged her as its creator. She identified the need for home security invention when she saw crime in her neighborhood being ignored by local law enforcement; it would take hours for police to show up if they even came at all. Her invention was comprised of a motorized camera that could look through three different peepholes and project the image onto a monitor; it also included a remote control to unlock the doors for first responders and there was even a two-way communication device but the centerpiece was her panic button that is even used in many homes and businesses today to silently alert officials a crime is in progress. Marie had thoroughly thought of every outcome. Even at the SAFE contact center today we use a security system. We should all take a moment to consider that because Marie couldn’t trust that she could get help in her neighborhood from the authorities due to the color of her skin, she didn’t let that stop her from doing something about it, and we are all safer today as a result.
Lastly, I want to recognize Alice H. Parker who created the heater which as an anemic person I am grateful for every day. Even though little is reported about Alice H. Parker’s life, what we do know is her heater (better known in the 20th Century as a furnace) was patented December 23, 1919. Before then, homes relied on fireplaces — I cannot imagine going outside in the cold to chop wood every day or gather coal just to stay warm. Parker’s design used natural gas and that helped advance safety measures without the risks associated with burning wood. It has been 104 years, and now Alice’s design is so ubiquitous, we have the luxury of taking our heaters for granted. Thanks Alice!
These amazing people were so innovative and creative; their innovations forever changed the way we live. We can’t exactly know what they endured while birthing these amazing inventions, but they didn’t let the color of their skin stop them from being the greatest they could be regardless of living at the height of a tumultuous time for Black individuals.
To know that I can be a part of such a rich history means the world to me, and I hope one day I am able to advocate and push for change on a global level just like my ancestors before me. How do we continue the promise of Rev. R.B. Cottonreader Jr, Dr. Charles Drew, Marie Van Brittan Brown, and Alice Parker? For me, it is not accepting the status quo, pushing to do the right thing, and empowering my son to succeed as he grows and learns too. The promise of Black History Month is for us to continue to learn from the legacy of innovation and change we all share.
Here are links for further reading about these important figures: