By: Papa Minnow

Black History Month has always been a mixed bag of feelings as a black man in the western world. Throughout my schooling experience, the education of black history was often centered on the civil rights movement and the history of slavery in America and Canada.

Thankfully, my mother of Ghanaian descent did a great job of educating my siblings and I about other historical figures and African contributions. I vividly remember her volunteering to teach children in my school about black history. To this day many of them make it a point to remind me of the day they learned that history and how much fun it was.

With the rise of social media, more knowledge has become readily available and it’s important to shine light on black figures that made major contributions to the modern world.

1) Violet King

Violent King became the first black female lawyer in Canadian history. She was born on October 18th, 1929 in Calgary and from a young age King knew she wanted to be a lawyer and she strived to make that dream a reality. She was so confident in her belief that her grade 12 year book featured a caption that read: “Violet wants to be a criminal lawyer.”

She moved on to attend the University of Alberta in 1948. King was the only black female lawyer in her class, and one of three women to enroll in the faculty of Law. During her time as a student she became one of four students to receive an Executive “A” gold ring during an annual event titled “Colour Night”, which celebrated the contributions made by students to the University of Alberta.

King graduated and became the first black person to graduate from law school in Alberta and the only woman in her class to do so. After graduation, she passed the bar in 1954 and became the first black female lawyer to practice law in Canada; a huge milestone for the country.

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Violet King (left) becoming a lawyer. (Glenbow Archives)

Courtesy: The Canadian Encyclopedia

2) Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods was one of the most prominent inventors in American history. Born on April 23rd, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio, Woods took up several engineering jobs as a young man with very little schooling. He eventually moved to New York City in 1876, and took courses in engineering and electricity, realizing they would be the key to a better future.

Woods moved back to Ohio in the summer of 1878 where he worked for the Springfield, Jackson and Pomeroy Railroad Company for eight months, and later as an engineer for the Dayton and Southeastern Railway Company for 13 months. He then moved to Cincinnati to set up his own company to create and sell electronic apparatuses.

His most significant patent was the multiplex telegraph/induction telegraph that allowed men to communicate by voice over telegraph wires, speeding up communication and preventing errors that led to train wrecks. This patent was purchased by Alexander Graham Bell.

Woods also faced a lawsuit filed by Edison in which Woods won, and earned him the title of “Black Edison”. He would go on to invent what was later known as the trolley as well. Woods died on January 30, 1910 in New York City.

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3) Yasuke The Samurai

Yasuke was the first African samurai in Japanese history. His birthplace is unknown, but he arrived in Kyoto Japan in 1579. He stood tall at 6 feet and 2 inches (1.88m) at a time where the average height for a Japanese male was 5 feet, 2 inches. His sighting caused such a sensation that onlookers risked their safety to catch a glimpse, according to Lawrence Winkler a historian.

Nobunaga the Warlord was intrigued by his arrival and Yasuke surprised the Warlord with the little bit of Japanese he knew, which granted him favour. Yasuke entertained Nobunaga with his travels across Africa and India.

He was a fan of martial arts and had practiced them for years and was described as an eccentric man with a “warrior’s spirit”. Nobunaga treated Yasuke favourably and grew to liken him as family. Eventually Yasuke was bestowed the title of Samurai.

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Courtesy: BBC News

4) Tina Bell

Known as the Queen of grunge, Tina Bell was described as a brilliant song writer, lyricist, and performer and she had a significant presence in the punk and rock scenes. She was the lead singer in a Seattle band called Bam Bam and pioneered grunge music.

She was born on February 5th, 1957 in Seattle Washington and began singing at a young age, first joining the Mt. Zion Choir and had a take charge attitude according to her mother.

Bam Bam was created by combining the initials of Bell and guitarist Tommy Martin’s last names. They, along with other members, performed from 1983-1990. Bell and her band recorded one of the first grunge songs on vinyl in 1984.

Despite having packed out shows and innovating a whole new genre, the lack of major recognition took its toll on Bell and she retired in 1990. She married Martin and had a son TJ Martin, born in 1979. TJ became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary for his documentary Undefeated.

On October 10, 2012, Bell passed away.

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Courtesy: Gyaanipedia and Buttocks Productions

5) Lonnie Johnson

A former NASA engineer who went on to invent one of the most popular toys in the Super Soaker. Lonnie was born on October 6, 1949, in Mobile Alabama. Jonhson’s father was a handyman who taught Lonnie and five other children how to build their own toys.

One of his most fun creations was a go-kart that he built at the age of 13 from junkyard scraps which had a lawnmower engine attached to it. He rode it along the highway until police pulled him over. Jonhson knew he wanted to be an inventor and spent a lot of his time tearing things apart and learning about them.

In high school, Johnson represented his high school in a 1968 science fair as the only black student. He spent a year creating a robot that he entered into the competition and took home first prize.

After graduating he attended Tuskegee University on a scholarship for mechanical engineering. Two year’s later he received his master’s degree in nuclear engineering.

Johnson first joined the U.S. Air Force and helped develop the stealth bomber program. Eventually he moved on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979 working as a system’s engineer before moving back to the Air Force in 1982.

He spent his spare time working on his own projects and created a heat pump that used water to fire a jet stream. After seven years of tinkering and sales pitching he decided to go into the business. He sold his invention to the Larami corporation and the Super Soaker became a huge success gaining $200M in sales in 1991, and ranked among the Top 20 best-selling toys.

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Courtesy: Biography

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  1. What an unbelievable collection of inspiring figures. We have a long way to go in dismantling the many barriers still around today, but it’s always enjoyable to witness the successes of who were still able to commit to such remarkable achievements

    Liked by 1 person

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