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February 13, 2019

African American Contributions to Transportation

The depth and breadth of African American contributions to the American experience are immense. When it comes to transportation, the impacts have been felt worldwide. Below are just a few examples of African American designers, inventors, and engineers who have made a lasting impact on how we get around today.

Benjamin Banneker

In 1791, President George Washington appointed Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the federal city of Washington, DC, but he was dismissed from the project after only a year. The final design and surveying work that led to our nation’s capital was executed by two surveyors, Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker. It could be said that without Benjamin Banneker, the layout of DC’s streets and major buildings would look totally different! In present day DC, Banneker’s legacy is honored by a high school and park that bears his name. 

Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods made huge breakthroughs in railroad engineering that had a dramatic impact on how we travel the nation. After having to leave school at the early age of 10, Woods gained an apprenticeship and some blacksmith training, and later went on to become a railroad engineer. In 1880, Woods started the Woods Electric Company that patented railroad innovations in tunnel construction for the electric railroad system, telegraph communications between stations and moving trains, and overhead electric conducting lines.

Garrett Augustus Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan’s legacy is ever present at every major intersection. In 1907, he opened his own repair shop despite having only a sixth-grade level of education. As automobiles became more popular, there was a sharp increase in traffic collisions. In 1922, as a reaction to a serious accident happening in front of Morgan’s eyes, he filed a patent for a traffic control device having a third warning position — what we now know as the “yellow light.” Morgan sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.  

Gladys West

Every time we use our beloved navigation systems, we should thank Dr. Gladys West. In 1956, West was hired by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) where she became the second black woman employed there. Over her 42-year career at NSWCDD, she worked on various projects, but the most notable was her work in programming an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer that supported the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) we use today. Her contributions to the GPS weren’t publicly recognized until much later, making her a true hidden figure. She was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018.


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