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African Americans in Science & Math

There are numerous African American scientists and inventors who have made notable inventions and creations in different fields. After the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, the United States entered and era of rapid industrial and technological development. The foundations of great national economic growth were established between 1870 and 1900.

Benjamin Banneker african american inventor and scientistAfrican Americans played an important part in this development. The history of these inventors and scientists is one of the untold heroic stories of achievements against the odds. Who were these unsung heroes of American economic and industrial greatness? What were their backgrounds? What impact did their inventions have on America and the world?

Unlike black slaves, free blacks prior to the Civil War were entitled to receive patents for their inventions. Though,  because blacks lacked educational and vocational opportunities, few had the necessary skills or experience to develop their inventive ideas or patent them.

Despite these constraints, there were a number of successful black inventors whose inventions proved useful and important. Thomas Jennings, the first known African American to hold a patent, used the money he earned from his invention to fund abolitionist causes.

Some slaves, who were skilled craftsmen, did create devices or techniques that benefited their masters' enterprises. According to a decision by the federal government in 1858, though, neither the slave nor the slave owner could claim ownership rights to such an invention.

In 1870, following the Civil War, the U.S. patent laws were revised so that anyone, regardless of race, could hold a patent. Consequently the number of patents issued to African Americans soared.

Elbert Frank Cox (1895-1969). A.B., Indiana University, 1918; Ph.D., Cornell University, 1924. First African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics. In 1882 the University of Pennsylvania established its Ph.D. program in arts and sciences and ten years later awarded its first doctorate in mathematics. The modern Department of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania dates from 1899 when mathematics at the University became fully distinguished from colligate disciplines. Like other departments in the Graduate School, Mathematics admitted women and people of color from its inception. 

"A Century of Black Presence" is an University exhibition that opened in 1980 and still on display in the lobby of the DuBois College House. The University of Pennsylvania  first African American Ph.D.s in mathematics, however, did not enjoy public recognition until an exhibition was organized in 1998.

Many Americans are familiar with the scientific work of George Washington Carver, the Wizard of Tuskegee Institute, whose discoveries of various uses of the peanut and sweet potato led to 300 by-products of several industries.

By World War I, African Americans had left a permanent mark on the scientific, technological and industrial development of the United States.

George Wahington Carver African American inventorWhile the masses of African Americans were part of the hardworking labor forces in agriculture and industry, members of the "talented tenth" were hard at work creating inventions that helped transform America into an industrial giant. Not enough is known about these creative and ingenious individuals who achieved their success against enormous obstacles.

Since Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver left their marks on American science, African Americans have made great strides as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and inventors. It's a story of success in the face of great odds in a racist society. However, there's still much room for progress, because even today blacks are sorely underrepresented as science students, teachers, and professionals.

Below are a few remarkable and famous African American scientists who helped in making the world a better place to live. They played an important role in helping in advancement of technology, industry, and also products of day-to-day life. There were several others whose contributions were not recorded. However, the common thread between all of them was that they worked tirelessly for the betterment of entire humanity. Click on each name for a complete biography along with photos.

Benjamin Banneker  Janet Emerson Bashen    Patricia Bath  Miriam E. Benjamin    Andrew Jackson Beard   Henry Blair   
Bessie Blount     Charles Brooks    George Washington Carver     George Carruthers     Benjamin S. Carson   Emmett W. Chappelle       David Crosthwait   Ronald Demon   Dr. Charles R, Drew   Thomas Elkins    Philip Emeagwali   Thomas Jennings     Frederick Jones     Percy Julian   Dr. Ernest Everett Just   Roscoe Koontz     Lewis H. Latimer   Jan Ernst Matzeliger     Elijah McCoy   Alexander Miles   Garrett Morgan     Derrick Pitts     Norbert Rillieux   Louis Roberts    Cordell Reed   Henry Sampson    Valerie Thomas  
Neil deGrasse Tyson     Madame Walker   James Edward West   Doctor Daniel Hale Williams   Joseph Winters  
Dudley Weldon Woodard     Granville T. Woods
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