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FreightWaves Classics: Black History Month celebrates men and women who made the USA a better nation

The history behind Black History Month

History.com explains that “Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history.” The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” which was begun by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other Blacks. 

What became Black History Month began in 1915, 50 years after the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in the United States.

In September 1915, Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, “an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.”

The organization that Woodson and Moorland founded is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It sponsored a national Negro History Week in 1926. The second week of February was chosen for the celebration because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. 

Over the years that followed, mayors nationwide issued annual proclamations that recognized “Negro History Week.” Due in part to the civil rights movement “Negro History Week” grew into Black History Month on a number of college campuses.

President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976. He asked Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since President Ford, every U.S. president has officially designated February as Black History Month. 

FreightWaves Classics recognition 

Several FreightWaves Classics articles have been published that recognize the role of Black Americans in transportation history. Among the articles are a four-part series on the Red Ball Express, in which Black soldiers helped move the supplies needed by the U.S. Army to take back Europe from the Nazis. You can read the “FreightWaves Classics: Red Ball Express trucks hauled critical supplies for American troops” series here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

Black soldiers were also a major part of the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II. Their exploits are profiled in the article “FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Alaska Highway was built 80 years ago.” Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the article.

In the article entitled “FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Aviatrix Bessie Coleman inspired millions,” Coleman’s aviation exploits in the 1920s were profiled.

In “FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Willard S. Townsend was a pioneering labor leader,” Townsend’s leadership of railroad red caps was profiled in the article. 

“FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Marcus Garvey started Black-owned steamship company” profiles Garvey, who founded the Black Star Line. You can read the article here.

Here are two more examples of Blacks who have had an impact on transportation.

Three-light traffic signal

Despite having only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan developed several key inventions. The son of a slave, Morgan’s inventions included an improved sewing machine and the safety hood, which was later known as the gas mask.

Morgan’s impact on transportation was the invention of the improved traffic light in 1923. Prior to his invention, traffic lights had only a green and red light or signs that had “GO” and “STOP” printed on them. These signs would come out of a traffic light.

Morgan’s three-light systems were among the first invented in the 1920s, resulting in widespread adoption of the traffic lights that now have been the standard for decades. 

With money earned from other inventions, Morgan bought an automobile. Riding in his car one day, he witnessed a crash at a Cleveland, Ohio, intersection. Seeing the accident caused Morgan to think about traffic lights, and he developed an expanded light system that included the yellow “caution” light, which warned drivers that the light was about to turn to red, requiring them to stop. He filed for a patent of his invention in 1923, and it was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in 1924. 

There is little doubt that thousands of lives have been saved with the addition of the yellow (caution/warning) light in the middle of traffic lights.

In addition to his inventions, Morgan also founded a newspaper (the Cleveland Call) to address racial injustice.

Refrigerated trucks

In a recent two-part article, FreightWaves Classics profiled refrigerated railroad cars that carried meat, produce and other goods that needed to be cooled during their journeys. By following the links you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of that article.

But it was Black inventor Frederick McKinley Jones who earned a patent for the roof-mounted cooling system that was used to refrigerate goods in truck trailers in the 1940s.

Jones received more than 60 patents during his career; however, it was his patent for a cooling system that led to refrigerated trailers, known generally as “reefers.” 

Jones received a patent for this invention from the U.S. Patent Office in 1940. He co-founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company, which later became Thermo King. Today, Thermo King is “the global leader in transport refrigeration and heating for trailers, trucks, buses, rail cars and shipboard containers.” 

During World War II, U.S. Thermo Control Company was a critical component of the war effort, because its refrigeration units helped to “preserve blood, food and supplies.”

FreightWaves salutes these Black inventors, pilots, soldiers, entrepreneurs, labor leaders and the millions of other Black Americans who have contributed in so many ways to the history of the United States of America.