It’s painful being a pioneer.
“Black Firsts: 500 Years of Trailblazing Achievements and Ground-Breaking Events” is a proud celebration of Black success. But its thousands of entries — groundbreakers in every field — often come with nagging questions and a kind of weary anger.
Why did so many others stand in their way? And why are we only hearing about some of these achievements now?
It’s not the fault of author Jessie Carney Smith. Her book, now in its fourth edition, was begun nearly 30 years ago. It remains dedicated to “the abounding success of our people who, despite the odds, continue to reach new heights.”
Smith organizes her achievements first by field, then chronologically. People in government take up the most room, with more than 150 pages of entries. Athletes come next, with nearly 90.
Some of the most interesting people, however, are the least famous.
Readers likely know about George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts. But how many know about the first Black American to receive a patent, Thomas L. Jennings? He devised a dry-cleaning process back in 1821, between running his Manhattan tailor shop and promoting the abolition of slavery.
Other black inventors gave America everything from golf tees to ironing boards. And some inventions saved lives. That metal fire escape bolted to apartment buildings? Credit J.R. Winters, who devised it back in 1878. The pacemaker? Thank Otis F. Boykin, who started working on the device in 1959.
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