Let’s celebrate the Black pioneers who have shaped the history of transportation and mobility. Many of the inventions and innovations that we now consider essential components of the transportation industry would not exist without these African American visionaries and engineers.
Frederick McKinley Jones: The man behind refrigerated (reefer) trucks
Have you ever stopped to think about how your favorite type of ice cream arrived in the frozen section of your local supermarket? Or how penguins make their way from a zoo on one side of the country to another on the opposite side?
It’s all thanks to automotive mechanic Frederick McKinley Jones, who, by the end of his life, had received over 60 patents as well as a nomination to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.
In the 1930s, Jones invented an air conditioning system for freight trucks. This new means of mobile refrigeration allowed vehicles to carry perishable goods, like food, medicine, flowers, and more, over long distances. Eventually, the technology made its way into boats as well, and the ability to ship food and medicine worldwide helped expand the food industry, allowing people to experience unique cuisines from all over the world.
Homer B. Roberts: an extraordinary leader and salesman
As the first Black man to be appointed to the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps, Homer B. Roberts certainly made his mark on history in more ways than one. Upon his return from service though, Roberts recognized a need for transportation within his community in Kansas City. As a result, he decided to put his leadership skills to work by starting a car dealership.
Roberts’s dealership focused on the needs of the local Black community. He sold 60 vehicles to Black drivers before he opened up a new dealership called Roberts Company Motor Mart. The business helped the community grow through more than just the expansion of transportation. Roberts also provided job opportunities for members of his hometown, passing on his innate leadership abilities and his talents as a salesman.
Elbert Robinson: A wheel maker and EV pioneer
From private cars to public transport, electric vehicles have been a growing part of the automotive industry since the late 19th century. In fact, electric trolleys took to the streets of major cities in the mid-1880s, and Elbert Robinson played a major role in improving their safety.
Robinson’s invention, patented in 1893, made major refinements to the wheels of the electric trolleys that ran along the railways of Nashville, Tennessee. The refinements allowed the trolleys to maneuver more accurately and safely by securing the wheels to the wire anytime the car encountered a slope or entered a bend. These safety measures helped ensure that electric public transportation would remain a safe option for those using it.
Samuel Moore: The headlight pioneer
On the topic of safety, we owe some of our most important safety innovations to inventor Samuel Moore. Throughout the early 20th century, Moore patented a number of inventions that still appear on modern day vehicles.
These inventions included self-directing headlights, vehicle headlight mechanisms, fuel valve locks, and even a set of headlights for locomotives. Not only did Moore’s inventions improve the safety of operating motor vehicles, but they also made the overall experience of driving much more pleasant.
Gladys West: Queen of the GPS
Hired in 1956 as one of only four Black employees at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Gladys West was a brilliant mathematician. Throughout her career at the Naval Center, she helped pinpoint the locations of satellites in the night sky by collecting and interpreting data from them.
This data is what would eventually lead to the development of GPS technology in 1973. Without West’s work, we might still be stuck in the age of maps and pulling over to ask locals, “which way is the Interstate?”
Charles & Frederick Patterson: The first Black dealership owners
A father son duo, Charles and Frederick Patterson paved the way as the first ever African American owners of a car manufacturing company. Purchasing business shares from Charles’s then-partner J.P. Lowe’s horse carriage manufacturing company in 1893, the two established the only Black-owned car manufacturer of their time. They renamed the company “C. R. Patterson and Sons” and ran it together until Charles passed away in 1910.
The company originally produced 28 different types of carriages. However, after his father’s passing, Frederick expanded the business to also offer automobile repair services as well as their own models of automobiles. The first model, released in 1915, was known as the Patterson-Greenfield and cost just under $700.
Garrett Morgan: The safety man
Inventor Garrett Morgan created one of the most iconic and essential transportation gadgets of all time: the traffic signal. Living in Cleveland, Morgan noticed the various types of transportation people used throughout the city. With cars, horses, and bicycles all populating the streets at once, there were a lot of accidents.
After witnessing a fatal accident, Morgan decided to do something about the ineffective traffic signals being used by the city at the time, which only read “Stop” and “Go” with no transition in between.
In 1922, Morgan debuted his traffic signal on the streets of Cleveland. The invention consisted of a T-shaped pole that displayed the usual “Stop” and “Go” along with a third option called “All hold.” The “All hold” signal stopped traffic from both sides, allowing pedestrians to cross the street safely. It later morphed into the traditional red, yellow, and green traffic lights we see today.