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Blog Category: Black History Month

Uncovering History’s Black Women Inventors

Dr. Patricia E. Bath and a drawing of her patent

Editor's note: This has been cross-posted from Inventor's Eye, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Publication for the Independent Inventor Community

February and March are Black History Month and Women’s History Month, respectively. Inventors Eye takes a look at past and present to salute the many Black women inventors who have contributed to the growth of innovation in America.

Black women throughout American history have impacted and contributed to our nation’s culture of innovation. Patents offer a unique lens through which to view history. By tracing the technologies patents protect—or once protected—as well as the inventors listed on those patents, an image of the past emerges. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents for more than 200 years. That’s a lot of history, and it contains many stories of successful black women who have changed the technological face of America. Today, black women continue to ignite the spark of genius and make key and meaningful contributions to America’s inventive process. 

The trove of historical information locked in patents can be a challenge to extract, as patents do not record extensive personal details about inventors such as race. Adding to the difficulty is the common practice of early inventors to use initials as a way to conceal their identity or gender. There is ongoing debate about the first black woman inventor, but modern research tools have made it less difficult to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. Though we may never be able to tell the full story of black women inventors, the findings reveal that they have consistently conceived innovative ideas and aggressively filed patent applications throughout history.

Martha Jones of Amelia County, Va., might have become the first black woman to receive a United States patent. Her application for an “Improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller” was granted U.S. patent No. 77,494 in 1868. Jones claimed her invention could husk, shell, cut up, and separate husks from corn in one operation, representing a significant step forward in the automation of agricultural processes. Five years later in 1873, Mary Jones De Leon of Baltimore was granted U.S. patent No. 140,253 for a novel cooking apparatus. De Leon’s invention consisted of the construction and arrangement of a device for heating food by dry heat and steam. The design of the apparatus shows that it was an early precursor to the steam tables now found often at food buffets.

Other documented 19th century black women inventors include Judy W. Reed and Sarah Goode. Reed, from Washington, D.C., was granted a patent in 1884 for a dough kneader and roller (U.S. patent No. 305,474) and Goode, from Chicago, was granted a patent in 1885 for a folding cabinet chair (U.S. patent No. 322,177).

Spotlight on Commerce: Antwaun Griffin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations

Antwaun Griffin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations, International Trade Administration

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Antwaun Griffin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations

As the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations within the International Trade Administration's (ITA) U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, I help oversee all aspects of the Department of Commerce's trade promotion and export assistance services. This includes the management of 109 U.S. Export Assistance Centers (USEAC’s) around the country as well as oversight of the government’s efforts to recruit U.S.-based exhibitors and foreign buyers to domestic and international trade shows. In addition, my office also oversees the planning and execution of most government-led trade missions.

Often times this work involves critical analysis of our internal business operations to ensure that they are aligned with staff needs and those of our various clients—small businesses, industry associations, state and local governments and other federal agencies involved in trade promotion. Other times, it involves traveling to meet with business owners and groups to encourage them to export—thus creating or retaining more jobs here in the United States.

Federal Triangle Partnership Hosts Gwendolyn Boyd to Celebrate National Black History Month

Gwendolyn Boyd

Earlier this week, the Federal Triangle Partnership, consisting of the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, hosted its annual program commemorating the 2013 National Black/African American History Month. The 2013 national theme is “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.”

The keynote speaker was Ms. Gwendolyn Boyd, appointed by President Obama to serve as a Member of the Board of Trustees, Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Ms. Boyd was the 22nd National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the nation’s largest African American public service sorority. She is also an engineer at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff. She has been a prominent advocate for women's equality and for the recruitment of African Americans into science and engineering. In addition to her current responsibilities at APL, she is responsible for the coordination and development of Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) initiatives, which include the implementation of the APL Technology Leaders Summer Internship Program. That program identifies students who aspire to careers in Engineering and Computer Science from HBCU/Minority Serving Institutions and Hispanic Serving Institutions.


Spotlight on Commerce: Izella Mitchell Dornell, Deputy Chief Information Officer

Izella Dornell, Deputy Chief Information Officer, Office of the Secretary

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Izella Mitchell Dornell, Deputy Chief Information Officer

As Deputy Chief Information Officer for the Department, I am responsible for leading the effort that provides Department Information Technology (IT) program and project oversight for all major IT investments all appropriately aligned with the Department and mission objectives and goals. My responsibilities also include facilitating the current shared service initiatives for the Herbert C. Hoover Building resident bureaus (Commerce headquarters), which include email cloud migration, web hosting, IT security, a tier one service/help desk call center, and video teleconferencing capability. I employ a combination of leadership and management skills to provide our team members with the necessary resources to enable their individual and collective professional growth. I also implement effective fiscal strategies, performance assessments, healthy customer service focus, and the management and operations for the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO).

I consider myself a Texan, but I grew up in Alabama, graduating at the top of my high school class in Birmingham, Alabama, with a keen interest in science and mathematics. I earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a master’s of business administration degree from the University of Houston. Because I am a firm believer in education, I completed several Executive Leadership programs at Harvard, Simmons College, and Penn State University.

Spotlight on Commerce: Dr. Willie May, Associate Director for Laboratory Programs and Principal Deputy, NIST

Dr. Willie May, Associate Director for Laboratory Programs and Principal Deputy, NIST

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Willie May, Associate Director for Laboratory Programs and Principal Deputy, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Sometimes even the most difficult circumstances lay the foundation for very positive outcomes. I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It goes without saying that any aspirations for becoming a scientist and  a senior leader of a world class scientific agency with a $1 billion dollar budget and four Nobel Prizes would never have occurred to me. 

But like most people I had some advantages hidden among the more visible obstacles to success.Advantage number one: my mother and father. They made sacrifices for me and my two younger sisters and expected us to rise above our surroundings and  go to college. I was also expected to get good grades even though in my community it was more important to be a good athlete than it was to be a scholar. I actually was able to do both.

Advantage number two: I had excellent, smart, and very committed teachers. Opportunities were limited for people of color in mid- 20th century Alabama. Most African Americans like me were laborers in the mines and steel mills. Professional jobs were teacher, preacher, lawyer, doctor and undertakers; and their client base was limited to the black community. The best minds of my neighborhood went to college and became teachers. And they came back to teach us everything they possibly could.  

In my case that included college-level chemistry in high school. Mr. Frank Cook, my high school chemistry teacher, selected five of us for his own experiment. Starting in 10th grade he taught us the same material he had learned just the summer before at Alabama A&M University. That head start gave me the confidence I needed for college. Besides me and my lifelong friend, Marion Guyton (former Attorney with the Justice Department), others who benefitted from  these highly regarded public school teachers include  former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, chief of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Research Division, Tommie Wright and  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president, Shirley Jackson. 

Advantage number three started with heartbreak. Guyton and I were always competing with each other. As high schoolers, we both applied to Howard University, the Harvard of the black community. Marion got a full scholarship and he was more than happy to flaunt and badger me about it. When no letter came for me, I inquired about my application. It was nowhere to be found.  I later learned from my principal, R.C. Johnson (Colin Powell’s father-in-law) that the application had been lost in his office. To make up for the error, he personally arranged for me to get a scholarship to Knoxville College.

Spotlight on Commerce: Tené Dolphin, Chief of Staff, Economic Development Administration

Tené Dolphin

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Tené Dolphin, Chief of Staff, Economic Development Administration

February is always a special time for our nation to remember the contributions of African Americans, but I never limit my celebration of Black History to just one month. As a child growing up in the historically rich city of Philadelphia, I learned about the men and women who made remarkable contributions to not only our community, but to our country and to the world. Certainly the significance of the election of the first African American President of the United States is particularly noteworthy during this time of reflection and introspection. I am filled with pride and deep emotion when I recall the struggles and triumphs of the past, and observe the advances we continue to make together as Americans.

Over the last four years, I have served in two leadership positions within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Today, as Chief of Staff at the Economic Development Administration, I am encouraged by how Commerce’s priorities align with the administration’s goals and by how we are uniquely positioned to play a significant role in implementing the president’s economic agenda to put more Americans back to work and invest in the industries of the future that will increase our nation’s competitiveness. In my role, I work to lead program operations, staff development, and other general management efforts. I routinely serve as management liaison for agency labor management council, departmental labor management council, other Commerce bureaus, federal agencies, and the White House. 

Spotlight on Commerce: James Smith, Chief Administrative Patent Judge

James Smith, Chief Administrative Patent Judge

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest post by James Smith, Chief Administrative Patent Judge, United States Patent and Trademark Office

It is my privilege to serve as Chief Judge of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I was appointed to the position in May of 2011 by then Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. Prior to taking this position I served as the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for Baxter International, a Chicago-based healthcare company that develops medical devices and treatments for a wide range of human medical conditions. At the company, I led the part of its operations concerned with its patent, trademark and copyright matters. In the current role at the Board, I am part of – actually lead -- a 300-person team, which includes about 170 administrative patent judges who hear appeals from decisions in which the USPTO denies patent rights to applicants. The Board also hears trials which resolve disputes between patent owners and other parties seeking to have patents revoked. All of our cases bring some element of closure to outstanding patent legal issues, thus helping advance the use and protection of inventions in the United States. Our mission is squarely centered on helping innovative businesses bring about an America with great well-being for all.

For me, taking the position at the USPTO allowed me to return to Washington, DC, after being away for more than 20 years. I grew up in DC, and was a big beneficiary of the many educational things it had to offer, such as its historical sites, museums and wonderful cultural offerings. My parents, who taught in the area schools for decades, made regular use of Washington’s cultural richness in their wider instruction of all three of their children. They were big proponents of education, and always insistent that their children learn and appreciate history, including by knowing of the substantial contributions of African-American citizens to the development of our country.

Spotlight On Commerce: Cedric Grant, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Portrait of Cedric Grant

Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of an America Built to Last.

I have dedicated the majority of my professional career to guiding faith-based and non-profit organizations toward positive social and economic change. I attended Howard University (GO BISON!!), graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Business Finance, and earned a Master of Divinity Degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Additionally, I received a Master of Public Administration from the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University.

In June 2009, I was appointed by the White House as the Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Commerce. As a member of Secretary John Bryson’s senior advisory team, I seek to forge and enhance partnerships with secular and faith-based organizations, particularly in policy areas of census, economic development and minority business development.

At Commerce, we are working hard to create an America built to last. One of the ways my office approaches this goal is to strengthen and increase capacity of the non-profit organizations by encouraging cross-sector partnerships to stimulate local economies, create jobs and attract private investments in communities with high unemployment and low per capita income. In 2010, non-profits alone accounted for $779 billion of our country’s gross domestic product (5.4 percent). As we work to improve our economy, it’s important to know that non-profits employ and create jobs locally; in 2009, nine percent of the economy’s wages, and over 10 percent of jobs in 2009.