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Accepting Truman's challenge to expand my American history knowledge

• Feb 1, 2019 at 2:00 PM

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” — Harry S. Truman

Since February is Black History Month, I thought it would be good for me to expand my knowledge of American history. So, in celebration of the month, I took the time to research, and here are just a few of the interesting facts I learned:

While I was aware of the Tuskegee Airmen and their contribution to America’s success in World War II, it was only recently that I became aware of the 369th Infantry Regiment (aka The Harlem Hellfighters). The Hellfighters were an infantry unit of the New York Army National Guard. In World War I, they spent more time in combat (191 days) than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment, with 1,500 casualties. In 1918, two members of the unit, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first American soldiers to ever receive The Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration, for their valor.

I knew that Joe Louis was a heavyweight boxing champion from Detroit and was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, but what I didn’t know was that he was credited for helping to end segregation in the U.S. armed forces. In 1942, he fought a charity bout that raised $47,000 for the Naval Relief Society, and the next day he volunteered to enlist in the military. He served in a Special Services Division until 1945.

Speaking of serving your country, I learned that by the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) had served as soldiers and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 of them died over the course of the war — 30,000 from infection or disease.

Imagine what the roads would look like without traffic lights. Well, thanks to Garrett A. Morgan, we don’t have to. Born to freed slaves, with only a sixth-grade education, Morgan owned a repair shop, clothing business and cosmetic product line. He started The Cleveland Call Black newspaper in 1920 and patented the mechanical traffic light in 1923. He later sold the patent to General Electric.

I can’t say I’ve ever been a big user of dry cleaning, but I was intrigued to learn that, in 1821, Thomas L. Jennings, a free man living in New York City, was the first African-American to hold a U.S. patent. He is credited for inventing the dry-cleaning process. He is also known for his work as an early abolitionist and his leadership in the NAACP.

I learned that Frederick Jones is credited with 61 patents. He invented the ticket dispensing machine in 1943. This invention revolutionized the transportation and entertainment industries. Some of his other inventions include the portable X-ray machine, the portable refrigeration unit and the two-cycle gasoline engine.

As one who enjoys a good potato chip, I was fascinated to learn about George “Speck” Crum. While working as a cook, he had a customer send back his french fries for being cut too thick. This was upsetting to Crum and his sister (and sous chef), so he cut them extra thin to enrage the customer. But it backfired — the customer loved the thin cut and the potato chip was born. These chips were originally called “Saratoga Chips.”

When I think about the taming of the Wild West, I didn’t consider the fact that of the estimated 35,000 cowboys who worked ranches and rode trails on the American West frontier, somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 or more were black.

While I’ve always been intrigued by stealth technology, what I didn’t know was that Lonnie G. Johnson, a Tuskegee graduate who joined the Air Force and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, was integral to the development of the stealth bomber. He also worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. He later started Johnson Research and Development, where he acquired more than 100 patents. But what I will remember him most for is his invention of the super-soaker squirt gun!

Imagine not being able to attend high school because of the color of your skin but refusing to give up, and ultimately earning a Ph.D.! When I talk about persistence in the future, the name that will come to mind first is Percy Julian. Born in Alabama in 1899, and despite being challenged at every turn in his career, he is regarded as one of the most influential chemists in American history. Unable to be promoted to full professor in the academic world, and unable to find a prominent chemical company that would promote him, in 1954 he established his own laboratory. Seven years later, he sold the company and became one of the first black millionaires. He then founded the Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization he ran for the rest of his life.

As a lifelong learner, I am grateful Truman’s challenge expanded my knowledge of America’s meaningful black history.


— By Mark Smith, Tribune community columnist

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