Black History Month was the brainchild of historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson, who believed Black people should be proud of their heritage and all Americans should celebrate the achievements of Black Americans, too many of which have been overlooked.
In honor of Black History Month, this year we’re highlighting six important leaders in transportation history that you may not have read about in history books, but that are no less important.
“We are incredibly proud of our past Black leaders in the transportation industry. Our operations would be very different without their achievements,” said Debra Schrampfer, Chief Diversity Officer and AVP Workforce Resources for Union Pacific Railroad. “It’s important to document and tell these stories in an honest and authentic way; the reality is that they accomplished great things against much greater barriers than their counterparts.”
Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963)
Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, where he lived until his move to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895. It was there that the difficult-to-navigate, narrow and dangerous streets prompted him to take his place in transportation history.
After witnessing a fatal crash, Morgan invented a three-position traffic signal, the predecessor of the modern-day traffic light. Although “stop” and “go” signals existed, Morgan’s invention also included a third position that stopped traffic in both directions and allowed pedestrians to cross streets with greater safety. He first tested his traffic signal in 1922 in Cleveland; eventually it was used throughout North America until early models of today’s automatic red-, yellow- and green-light traffic signals came on the market. For this reason, many in the transportation industry consider Morgan to be “The Father of Transportation Technology.”
The traffic signal wasn’t Morgan’s only invention. He is recognized as the inventor of a version of the gas mask used by the U.S. Army in World War I and held patents on a variety of personal grooming products. Morgan was a talented sewing machine repairman, and eventually he owned his own tailoring shop where much of the sewing done by his 32 employees was performed on machines Morgan built himself. Morgan also had a successful career as a journalist and established a successful newspaper.
Morgan passed away in 1963 but lived to receive a commendation from the United States Government for his traffic signal shortly before his death.
Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892. At the age of 18 she attended the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma, but was forced to drop out after only a semester because she couldn’t afford tuition. At the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. There, she attended the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and became a manicurist in a local barbershop. But her career would take a decided turn following her brothers’ military service during World War I.
Having served in France, Coleman’s brother teased her about how French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes, but Bessie couldn’t. This rousing lit a fire in Coleman to pursue becoming a pilot. But as a Black woman, no school would accept her. Coleman didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, she sought to go to the one place she knew accepted female pilots: France. Coleman took French classes at night so she could complete her application in French.
Her diligence paid off. Coleman was accepted to the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France and earned her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. Coleman became known for performing tricks in the air, earning her the nicknames “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess,” among others. Coleman was passionate about encouraging Black women to fly and toured the country giving lectures, teaching flight lessons and performing at flight exhibitions.
People were fascinated by Coleman’s performances, and she became popular both in the United States and in Europe. She toured the U.S. giving flight lessons, performing in flight shows, and she encouraged African Americans and women to learn how to fly. Coleman refused to speak anywhere that had segregated entrances or other discriminatory practices.
Before her tragic death in a plane crash on April 30, 1926, Coleman accomplished her dream of owning her own plane. Although she was only 34 at the time of her death, Coleman’s legacy has lived on. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began its tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave each year and in 1977, a group of Black female pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the postal service issued the “Bessie Coleman Stamp” in honor of her accomplishments.
Coleman’s death was front-page news in Black newspapers, but mainstream publications barely mentioned it. In 2019, Coleman at last received a proper memorial in print. As part of an effort to recognize the lives of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported at the time, The New York Times ran a complete obituary that read, in part, “Coleman saw aviation as a way to empower Black people in America and dreamed of opening a flight school. Future pilots said they had been inspired by her, and flight clubs have been named in her honor.”
Frederick McKinley “Casey” Jones (1893-1961)
The next time you enjoy a meal, you may want to thank Frederick McKinley Jones. That’s because he patented the mechanical transport refrigeration unit, which made it possible for long haul trucks and railroad cars to transport fresh and frozen foods around the world. Prior to Jones’ invention, blocks of ice were required to keep food cold during transport, increasing the risk of spoilage. Jones’ automatic refrigeration system revolutionized the long-distance transportation of perishable goods.
But that wasn’t Jones’ only invention. In 1939 he patented his first invention, an automatic ticket-dispensing machine for use in movie theaters. Many more followed. In total, Jones was the proprietor of 61 patents, 40 of which were for refrigeration equipment. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Jones was the chief engineer and co-founder of Thermo King, a leading manufacturer of transport temperature control systems.
Following his death in 1961, Jones was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush posthumously awarded Jones the National Medal of Technology, making him the first Black American to receive the honor.
Jones’s enterprising spirit is captured in a 1953 speech. “Don’t be afraid to work,” he said. “Don’t listen to others tell you you’re wrong. Remember, nothing is impossible. Go ahead and prove you’re right.”
Arcola Philpott (1913-1991)
On August 1, 1944, Arcola Philpott earned her place in transportation history. That was the day the Los Angeles Railway hired her to be the first Black and female streetcar operator (or “motormanette,” as they were called at the time). Philpott opened the door for both women and African Americans to operate streetcars in Los Angeles. Just weeks after her hiring, Los Angeles Railway hired its first Black motormen.
Arcola Philpott’s daughter, Ethel Philpott, is noted as saying that seeing other women taking jobs considered to be male roles inspired her to apply for the motormanette job. An article from the Los Angeles Metro Transportation Library and Archive quotes her as saying, “My mother was just like that, born in the wrong era for all the things she wanted to do; she was a real go-getter. She was extremely intelligent, courageous, fearless and a life-long learner.”
Philpott’s time as the first Black and female streetcar operator represents just a small portion of the impact she had on society. Originally from Chicago, Philpott graduated from Loyola University with a degree in social science and performed welfare work for seven years prior to moving to Los Angeles. Upon returning to Chicago, Philpott worked as a nurse and later as a researcher for the University of Chicago's History Department. She was also a talented pianist and spoke several languages.
William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr. (1920 – 2017)
William Thaddeus Coleman made history for both his contributions to the transportation industry and civil rights law. While attending Harvard Law School, he became the third African American man to serve on the board of editors for the Harvard Law Review. At the age of 26 he graduated magna cum laude and the following year he was admitted to the bar. Coleman served as a law clerk for Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the Third Circuit’s U.S. Court of Appeals. A year later he became the law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter’s law clerk, making him the first African American to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1949 Coleman met Thurgood Marshall, whom he assisted pro bono on NAACP cases. He would go on to work on several significant civil rights cases, including five NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) cases that led directly to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and McLaughlin v. Florida, which decided the constitutionality of interracial marriages. In 1971, Coleman was elected president of the NAACP-LDF.
Coleman’s mark on transportation history was first made in 1975, when President Gerald Ford appointed him Secretary of Transportation. This made Coleman just the second African American to serve in the cabinet. While serving for President Ford, Coleman drafted the first Statement of National Transportation Policy in U.S. history. In 1995, Coleman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to the legal profession and to society.
Rodney Earl Slater (1955 –)
Rodney Earl Slater was born in Marianna, Arkansas, and earned his law degree from the University of Arkansas. While there, he served as president of the UA chapter of the Black American Law Students Association and the Student Bar and was introduced to Bill Clinton, who at the time was the governor of Arkansas.
After being admitted to the Arkansas state bar in 1980, Slater served as an assistant attorney general in the litigation division under Attorney General Steve Clark. In 1982, he left that office to join Clinton’s staff, also serving as his deputy campaign manager in 1984 and 1986 and served several roles supporting the governor’s office and Clinton’s presidential campaign in the years that followed.
Slater’s transportation career began in 1987 when Clinton appointed him to the Arkansas Highway Commission. There, he marked his place in history as the youngest commissioner and the first African American to serve on that state board. Just five years later he was elected chairman. In 1993, Clinton named Slater director of the Federal Highway Administration, making him the agency’s first African American administrator in its hundred-year history. After four years of service, Clinton named Slater Secretary of Transportation in 1997, a title he held until 2001. Slater was just the second Black U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
Slater’s impact continues to be felt by the transportation industry through the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program, which he launched in 1997. The initial intent of the program was to prepare youth to become the future transportation workforce, with the goal of attracting a million youth to transportation careers and providing them the needed skills through mentorship and tutoring.
The Importance of Inclusivity
It’s important to honor the contributions of Black men and women throughout history. But it’s also important to focus on inclusivity moving forward.
“We cannot quantify the possible advances our country squandered because of past discriminatory barriers,” Schrampfer said. “Yet, the same opportunity is in front of us today. We can benefit from all great minds – not just a select few – if we can create environments where everyone has the same prospects.”
- The Impact of Black Inventors on the Railroad
- Railroad Safety: Train Horns and Grade Crossing Signals
- What Is a Refrigerated Boxcar — and How Do They Keep Shipments Cold?
- Which Reefer Unit Is the Best for Shipping Perishable and Frozen Goods?
- From Steam to Green: The Evolution of the Locomotive
- Surprising Railroad Inventions: U.S. Time Zones
- Surprising Railroad Inventions: The Ski Lift
- A Historic Hemp Shipment