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Celebrating the Remarkable Contributions of African Americans to Innovation and Technology

By Dr. Nashlie H. Sephus

I recently visited the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. Going from floor to floor, I was taking it all in. It was a completely immersive experience that evoked so many complex emotions. From the horrors of slavery to the struggles for civil rights, every exhibit offers a profound opportunity for reflection, education, and hope. My only disappointment was that there was not one floor dedicated solely to our contributions in technology and innovation. I left with a longing to see and celebrate the countless Black men and women who came before me and are a constant reminder to myself that despite African American women only making up three percent of the tech workforce, I belong in this industry.

As we celebrate Black History Month, the accomplishments of African Americans are far-reaching and varied. We’ve contributed to every sector and industry. From activism to arts and entertainment, to our contribution to innovation and technology that have shaped our modern world. African Americans have left an indelible mark on the landscape of innovation, be it pioneering inventions that revolutionized industries to groundbreaking discoveries that transformed our understanding of science. As we commemorate Black History Month, it is essential to recognize and celebrate these remarkable achievements.

Throughout history, we have and continue to overcome systemic barriers and discrimination to make significant strides in various fields, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Despite facing immense challenges, our ingenuity, resilience, and brilliance have propelled us to the forefront of innovation.

One of the most iconic figures in the realm of innovation is undoubtedly George Washington Carver. Born into slavery, Carver not only gave us the beloved peanut butter, but he was an agricultural chemist whose groundbreaking work with peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans revolutionized farming practices and transformed a stagnant agricultural economy in the South. Carver created approximately 518 new products from the crops, including ink, dye, soap, cosmetics, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber.

Necessity is the mother of invention. In 1966 Marie Van Brittan Brown filed a patent for the first home security system. Brown’s invention was inspired by the security risk that her home faced in the neighborhood where she lived in Queens, New York. Marie, a nurse and her husband, Albert, an electronics technician, didn’t work a standard nine-to-five. The crime rate in their  neighborhood was very high. As a result, Brown looked for ways to increase her level of personal security. Her original invention consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, a two-way microphone and an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police immediately. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television. 

Pre-COVID, we were slowly embracing the technology of video conferencing and virtual meetings. Fast forward just four short years and we can’t imagine a life without it. Video conferencing and other Internet-based audio/video and text communication applications wouldn’t exist if not for voice over IP (VoIP) technology. VoIP was invented by Dr. Marian Croak, a Black woman. Dr. Croak holds over 125 patents in VoIP technology and is Google’s Vice President of Engineering.  

We wouldn’t have cellphones if it wasn’t for Jesse Russell. He discovered a way to digitize speech to reduce bandwidth in the 1980s, which played a critical role in cell phone communications. Russell holds numerous patents in broadband wireless networks, including 4G. Mark Dean is credited for inventing the modern day computer while working at IBM.

Dr. Gladys West programmed early computers to better model the actual shape of the earth using data from satellites. This work laid the foundation for modern GPS featuring accurate models of the earth’s surface.

It can’t be overstated the  pivotal roles of mathematicians and engineers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson in NASA's space program during the 1960s, calculating trajectories for historic space missions and breaking down racial and gender barriers in the process.  Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel to space.

Our list is long and these are just a few of our trailblazers. African Americans have made significant contributions to fields as diverse as medicine, telecommunications, renewable energy, and beyond. From the creation of the portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food and portable X-Ray machine by Fredrick McKinley Jones, to the invention of the traffic signal by Garrett Morgan to the development of advancements in medical technology by Dr. Patricia Bath (ophthalmologist), our contributions have transformed countless lives and shaped the world we live in today.

As we reflect on the achievements of African Americans in innovation and technology, it is imperative to recognize that our contributions have often been overlooked or marginalized. Despite facing systemic obstacles and injustices, we have persevered and thrived, leaving an enduring legacy of excellence and innovation.

Innovation knows no boundaries and we embrace the full potential of human ingenuity. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us not only honor the past accomplishments of African Americans, but also commit ourselves to fostering an environment of inclusivity and opportunity in which future generations can continue to innovate, create, inspire and thrive!

About Dr. Nashlie Sephus

Dr. Nashlie H. Sephus is the Principal Applied Scientist For Amazon Artificial Intelligence (AI) focusing on fairness and identifying biases in these technologies. She formerly led the Amazon Visual Search team in Atlanta, which launched visual search for replacement parts on the Amazon Shopping app in June 2018. This technology was a result of former startup Partpic (Atlanta) being acquired by Amazon, for which she was the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Additionally, Dr. Sephus is the developer of the JXN Tech District and founder of The Bean Path, a  non-profit organization based in Jackson, MS dedicated to creating equity in STEAM opportunities by increasing access to tools, knowledge & networks to underserved communities, particularly in Mississippi.


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