Thursday, August 9, 2007

Untold tales of achievement


Untold tales of achievement

Too many African Americans have been left out of history books. Their deeds could be examples.

By Claude Lewis
Too bad African Americans are so often judged by their weakest representatives. It's especially tragic because the history of Americans of African descent is a fabulous one, steeped in stunning achievement.

You wouldn't know that from the way American culture represents American history. It is a travesty and a tragedy that African American successes largely have been left out of history books, while their failures have been prominently displayed on the nightly news and in bold headlines.

Undeniably, many young black males contribute to the grim statistics. Too many black men are associated with crime, drug trafficking, shootings and other antisocial behavior. But in spite of all the bad press, and no matter what the people who write history books and run the media want to write, African Americans have a long history of making a difference, a good difference.

The history of their accomplishments has too often been hidden, untold, or ignored. Often, people speak of black history as "the other side of the story," but no, it's not. It's part of The Story, the story of all of us. To speak of black history as somehow "alternative" is to insult achievers and innovators of all colors.

My bet is that the only aspect of black achievement most Americans know about is the sports-and-entertainment part. But in fact there is scarcely a discipline in America at which blacks have not excelled.

The black legacy in sports and entertainment is, of course, justly celebrated. From Jackie Robinson to Jim Brown to LeBron James, despite resistance, despite controversy, blacks have excelled. We hardly have to list the greats in each sport, they are so well-known.

In all the major sports, only the collusion of white owners and players kept blacks from competing and achieving. That includes boxing (Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman) and, more recently, the once-white enclaves of tennis (Serena and Venus Williams) and golf (Tiger Woods).

The world of music and dance is crowded with names like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Ross, B.B. King, Sammy Davis Jr., Jennifer Hudson, and countless others.

But let's get beyond the obvious. The list of black inventions is nothing short of astonishing, particularly when posed against the black American experience, which has been shaped, in part, by a steady stream of deliberate disadvantage. Somehow, millions of blacks managed to succeed in spite of all that.

Blacks quietly excelled - one almost wants to write "quietly," but it wasn't quiet, it was simply not acknowledged - in the sciences, architecture, inventions, art, and many other fields.

Garrett A. Morgan created many indispensable devices, including a type of traffic signal and a type of hooded respirator similar to the gas masks used by firefighters and rescue teams like those who arrived at ground zero after the 9/11 catastrophe.

Elijah McCoy was a prolific inventor who obtained more than 50 patents. He is joined by Granville T. Woods, known as the "Black Edison." He was among those who developed the "third rail" used in the world's electric railroads. He held more than 60 patents; after his death in 1910, AT&T, General Electric and Westinghouse Brakes purchased the rights to many of his discoveries.

Jan Matzeliger was to shoes what Henry Ford was to cars. Matzeliger discovered a method of mass-producing shoes. His lasting machine made it possible to create footwear for people around the world.

Daniel Hale Williams performed one of the earliest recorded open-heart surgeries July 9, 1893. Work such as his has, in years since, helped save millions of lives. Solomon Fuller was a pioneering neuropathologist and psychiatrist who improved the lives of many suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Samuel L. Kountz was a pioneer in medicine who specialized in kidney transplants.

I cite the achievements in science just to make a point, but I could cite long lists in a lot of fields. Do you like ice cream? How about letting yourself speculate that an American of African descent helped invent it? How about Augustus Jackson, an African American often mentioned among the possible inventors of that frozen confection?

The simple point is that all people really need is opportunity. Once the doors open for them, they can excel, and it has nothing to do with color.

Claude Lewis ( is a longtime Philadelphia journalist.

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