By Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-SC)
House Majority Whip
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published by NNPA on February 10.
The focus on the historical contributions of black people in America began when Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Black Life and History successfully lobbied for the creation of Black People’s Week. black history in 1926. They picked a week in February that could embrace the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Civil rights activities on college campuses in the 1960s stirred to extend the week to the entire month of February. President Gerald Ford formalized Black History Month in 1976, and every president since has followed suit.
Black history has taken on new meaning in this polarized political era. Education Week reports that since January 2021, 14 Republican-led states (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho) have imposed bans or restrictions on teaching about racial issues, and similar legislation is currently pending in 23 other states. These states claim to protect elementary and secondary school students from being taught critical race theory or “things that make white children uncomfortable.”
Theory is part of the higher education experience, not the K-12 curriculum. While no one denies the significant accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriett Tubman in our nation’s history, telling their stories has nothing to do with “critical race theory.” Their contributions and those of many others are critical facts about race that are missing from most of our textbooks and from many of our discussions.
For example, I often tell the story of Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer. Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb is in all of our history books, and we’re all comfortable with its story. What isn’t in all of our history books is the critical fact that he couldn’t keep his light bulb from overheating and burning out. It wasn’t until Edison collaborated with Lewis Latimer, the son of runaway slaves, that he got his light bulb to work. Latimer had invented a durable carbon filament. The fact that it was Latimer’s invention that made the light bulb functional seems uncomfortable for some to read in our history books.
There are many other similar facts. Thomas Savery, a white man, is known as the inventor of the steam engine, one of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution. However, the steam engine was very inefficient as it had to be constantly shut down for lubrication, a very dangerous and time consuming task. A critical and little-known fact is that Elijah McCoy, also the son of runaway slaves, invented an automatic oil cup, which allowed engines to be mechanically lubricated while still running. His invention saved the limbs of many “tankers” and created a more efficient and cost-effective way to operate steam trains. It is reported in many places that Elijah McCoy’s genius as an inventor is what gave rise to the much-used question that everyone seems comfortable using: “Is this a real McCoy ?”
John Haldane, a Scottish inventor, is often credited with inventing the gas mask during World War I, which began in 1914 and ended in 1918. The fact is that Garrett Morgan, a black man, invented the first gas mask after the 1911 New York Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire that killed 146 garment workers. Morgan patented his “breathing hood” in 1914, and he and his brother used the invention of the gas mask in 1916 to successfully rescue workers trapped by an explosion in sewer tunnels in Morgan’s hometown, Cleveland. However, due to their race, the white men were credited with the rescue.
Morgan also encountered resistance while trying to sell the gas masks. He hired a white actor to impersonate the inventor, while he disguised himself wearing the balaclava during presentations. Despite these challenges, Morgan invented the three-position traffic light and sold the patent to General Electric for $40,000.
What all of these inventors have in common is that these critical facts about black Americans have been overlooked and forgotten by history. In fact, when the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index was released in 2012, of the 1,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 who were asked who was the greatest inventor of all time, 52% answered Thomas Edison. There were no black inventors on the list, which illustrates how we fail our students by perpetrating false equivalences like critical race theory versus critical race facts.
This Black History Month, we must raise our voices and challenge the politically motivated false narrative about schools teaching critical race theory. Our history is what it is, and no amount of whitewashing or book banning will change it. But with thought leadership, we can learn from it.
Dr. Woodson wrote of his founding of Negro History Week that “if a race has no history, it has no valid tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thinking of the world, and it risks to be exterminated”.
There are so many African Americans from all walks of life who have been pioneers. If we don’t tell their stories and teach future generations about their contributions, our history is erased. And this is a critical fact.
Sumter native Representative Jim Clyburn represents South Carolina’s District 6 in the United States House of Representatives and serves as the Majority Whip.