Every week Melissa Jordan and Judge Mosley will honor the contributions of Black Americans.
From cell phones to cars, most people are familiar with the Geographical Positioning System, or GPS, but what most people don’t know, is that an African–American female mathematician was a part of the original team of engineers tasked with developing the highly useful system. Little did Gladys West know when she went to work for the Navy as a mathematician, that her work would change the lives of everyone forever. Gladys West was one of two African American women working for the Navy at the Dahlgren Naval Support Facility in 1956. Her assignment was to record satellite locations in orbit over the Earth and make calculations to determine the size and shape of the Earth. During her work recording satellite locations, she discovered that she was able to pinpoint her exact location on the Earth at any time, and thus GPS was born. There isn’t a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, NASA, parents, etc. — that doesn’t utilize the Global Positioning System. Despite the fact that it was her equations that make the whole system work, when traveling, the 91 year old West doesn’t use GPS and still prefers a paper map. On February 18, 2021, Dr. Gladys West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. The next time you ask Google or Siri how to get somewhere, remember none of this would have been possible without Dr. Gladys West, an African American Hidden Figure.
Many of the most important recordings in blues history were made at the studio of Paramount Records, located on the grounds of the Wisconsin Chair Company factory, in Grafton, Wisconsin. It was formed in 1917 and after struggling to break into the market for popular music, Paramount targeted the untapped African American audience by producing blues music. Paramount Records was able to recruit African American musicians from down south to travel north to Wisconsin to record. The label and its roster eventually included Ma Rainey, King Oliver, a young Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Son House, Ethel Waters, & Blind Lemon Jefferson. These were the top African-American blues and jazz performers of the 1920’s. By some estimates Paramount made more than 100,000 recordings. In its brief lifetime, Paramount was responsible for producing approximately 25% of all blues recordings released. The Great Depression and a fateful night in December of 1933, brought the chair company and the record label to their end. Legend has it that at the Wisconsin Chair Company’s annual Christmas party, all the employees were fired. Obviously angry they grabbed all the records of the recording studio and tossed them into the nearby Milwaukee river. So many major and influential musicians cut records there that it’s an official stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Captain David Kenyon
Did you know the fireman’s pole or sliding pole, one of the signature features of US fire stations, was invented in Chicago by an African American? David Kenyon, a Captain with the City’s first African American engine company (#21) came up with the idea in 1878. Before 1878, spiral staircases or sliding chutes were common, but not very fast. The Engine Company crafted a pole out of a Georgia pine beam by shaving it into a 3-inch diameter pole, and gave it several coats of varnish and a coat of paraffin. Despite being ridiculed by their fellow firefighters, others soon realized that Company 21 was usually the first company to arrive on scene when called, especially at night. Upon learning this, the Chief of the department ordered the poles to be installed in all Chicago firehouses. This change drastically improved fire response times. Eventually, in1880 the poles went from wood to brass, and stood in firehouses across the nation.
This is Kendall Jackson, a member of Gary, Indiana’s Scout Troop 53, and the first ever female African-American Eagle Scout. Jackson was only 14 years old when girls were first allowed to join the Boy Scouts (now Scouts BSA), and she wasted no time working her way to the top of the ranks. In May 2018, the national scouting organization announced it was changing the program’s name and would welcome girls as well as boys ages 11-17. Girls who joined Scouts BSA now learn from the same program, earn the same merit badges and achieve the same advancements that boys have earned for nearly 109 years in the Boy Scout program. Congratulations to Kendall for making history, and being an inspiration to girls and boys throughout the world
Learn more about the brilliant contributions of Black Americans here.