Hidden Complexions: African American Inventors Still Inspire Us

By: Ahmad Graves-El

Bessie Blount Griffin, a notable Afraican American inventor.

Throughout the history of the United States, many brilliant men and women of African descent have left a profound and enduring mark on this country, and the world, by using their ingenuity to create inventions that have helped further the progress of mankind.

Unfortunately, in this land of the free and home of the brave, where systemic racism has long blighted our society, a large portion of those ingenious individuals have never received the proper credit and recognition they so rightfully deserve.

African Americans are often conspicuously left out of children’s history books. These include Garrett A. Morgan, who has helped to save innumerable lives by inventing the three-way traffic signal in 1923; Elijah McCoy, who in 1872 patented an automatic lubrication device that helped make trains run more smoothly (and so widely coveted by the public, that when they purchased his device they knew they were getting “The Real McCoy”); and Madame C.J. Walker, who in the early 1900s, according to womenshistory.org, became a millionaire by “launching her own line of hair products and straighteners for African American women.”

As we celebrate “Black History Month,” here are two more examples of awe-inspiring African Americans who helped illuminate the world with their inventions.

Granville T. Woods, an African American inventor sometimes referred to as the “Black Edison.”

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) was a prodigious inventor who was often called the “Black Edison” for his work with electricity. By the time of his death, Woods had accumulated more than 60 patents for his innovative ideas. According to encyclopedia.com, “His inventions revolutionized railway and telegraph communication.”

Woods received patents for an Apparatus for Transmission of Messages by Electricity, an Incubator (for eggs), an Automatic Air Brake, and a Steam Boiler Furnace, among others. An invention considered one of Woods’ most important was the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, also known as the Induction Telegraph System, patented in November 1887.

During that era of railway travel, communication between a train station and railroad conductors on moving trains was inadequate, which led to some devastating events. For example, there were times when there’d be two trains on the same track headed toward each other, but neither of the conductors on the trains would know that this was occurring because there was no credible system in place for officials at the train station to provide that crucial information. This lack of communication, of course, caused confusion and led to an inordinate number of accidents.

According to a Jan. 31, 2019 New York Times article written about Woods by Amisha Padnani, “Woods’ invention suspended a coil beneath the train so that as it moved along the rails, a magnetic field would be created around it, allowing messages to be sent uninterrupted.”

Therefore, Woods’ invention was a major key in saving the lives of countless people who used trains for transportation.

Unbeknownst to many, an extremely important and inspirational inventor of African descent spent some time in Cumberland County and lived out her final days in Newfield. Her name was Bessie Blount Griffin.

According to an Oct. 17, 2018 article written by Leila McNeill for smithsonian.com, “Blount was a lot of things: nurse, physical therapist, even forensic handwriting expert. But more than anything else, she was an inventor. She dreamed up assistive technologies for people with disabilities.”

Griffin (1914-2009), was born in Hickory, Virginia. She was born a lefty, but taught herself how to write with both hands, feet, and amazingly, her teeth after one of her teachers constantly rapped her knuckles for writing with her dominant left hand.

She moved to New Jersey as a youngster and, according to her obituary, was “[f]orced to stop her education at the sixth grade, [but] Bessie continued in self-study to earn an equivalent of today’s GED, qualifying also for college entrance.”

Griffin received nurse’s and physical therapist training at two colleges in New Jersey. She then, according to her obituary, “freely volunteered her services as part of the Gray Ladies […] through and after World War II, rehabilitating limbless and paralyzed veterans.”

Her experiences with assisting “limbless and paralyzed veterans,” motivated her to create a tool that would allow them to feel some semblance of independence.

In 1951, Griffin procured a patent for her Portable Receptacle Support, which was a portable, electronic, self-feeding device. According to face2faceafrica.com, “She programmed a tube to deliver one bite of a meal at a time to a disabled patient. Whenever he or she was prepared for the next bite, the patient would bite down on the tube. She later simplified her invention so that it could be fit in a brace around a person’s neck and accomplish the same function.”

Griffin also, according to lemelson.mit.edu, invented the Disposable Cardboard Emesis Basin, also known as the kidney dish.

Griffin spent some time in Cumberland County helping the Vineland Police Department. During her work as a nurse in multiple hospitals, Griffin, according to her obituary from nj.com, “noted and documented the relationship between various states of physical health and handwriting characteristics publishing technical literature on ‘medical graphology.’”

Griffin astutely observed that there was a connection between a person’s handwriting and the mental state they were in at that time. This led her into the field of forensics where she assisted the Vineland, N.J. and Norfolk, Virginia police departments. According to nj.com: “She donated her time and services to the Vineland, N.J. NAACP, Camden Community College and the Creative Achievement Academy (Vineland, N.J.).”

Being a person of African descent and a woman caused Griffin to experience many obstacles throughout her lifetime, but she did not allow them to impede her from creating devices that would be useful for the greater good. Griffin is quoted as saying, “A colored person is capable of inventing something for the benefit of mankind.”

Throughout the history of the United States, people of African descent have been wrongly and unjustifiably depicted as inferior by a certain segment of citizens in this country. However, in this Information Age, the truth regarding the positive, long-lasting impact of inventions for humanity created by African Americans is finally coming to light.

And in the end, that light will help the whole human race shine brighter than ever before.

This article was originally published in the February 20, 2019 issue of the Follow Local News newspaper.