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Black History Month: Activists and Innovators in Transportation

Black history and the history of transportation are intrinsically connected. For generations Black leaders have altered the transit landscape through acts of bravery, innovation, and policy reform. Acknowledging the key people and events that have shaped transit today helps us to continuously pursue a more just and equitable transportation system. 

1841 marks the first ever recorded act of resistance against segregated public transportation. Frederick Douglass and James N. Buffman refused to leave a train car reserved for white passengers. This would only be the first of many documented instances of African Americans standing up against segregated transportation. 13 years later, Elizabeth Jennings, a 24-year-old school teacher, was going to church with her friend in New York when she was roughly removed from a streetcar. Following her forceful removal, Jennings took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court over this matter, and she won. Not only was she awarded $255 in damages, but more importantly, the Third Avenue Railroad Company agreed to the immediate desegregation of its streetcar service.  

In 1887, Granville T. Woods invented the induction telegraph system. This enabled trains to communicate with one another to reduce collisions. Woods held more than 50 patents and is the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer. Another inventor by the name of Garrett Morgan, invented a three-position traffic signal after witnessing a fatal crash in 1922. His invention is the predecessor of the modern-day traffic light, because of this many consider Morgan to be “The Father of Transportation Technology.” 

 In 1939, Frederick McKinley Jones patented the first successful refrigerated transportation unit. His invention made it possible for railroad cars and long-haul trucks to transport fresh and frozen foods without risk of spoilage. In 1941, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. led a boycott that prompted two Manhattan bus companies to agree to employ 100 Black drivers and 70 Black maintenance workers within a month. The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott was a foundational moment in the civil rights movement. Taking place from 1955 to 1956, the boycott ultimately resulted in the federal ruling of Browder vs. Gayle which legally ended racial public transportation segregation in the state of Alabama. Famous participants included Ann Robinson, Jo Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Mary Louise Smith, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. In the same year, McKinley Thomspon was hired by Ford Motor Company and became the first Black automotive designer. His sketches were an instrumental part of the final design for the first-generation Bronco. 

In 1975, William Thaddeus Coleman became the second African American to serve in the cabinet when President Gerald Ford appointed him Secretary of Transportation. During his time at the White House, Coleman drafted the first Statement of National Transportation Policy in U.S. history. In 1993, Rodney E. Slater became the first African American to serve as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  

Without contributions from Black inventors and activists, the current transportation landscape would look entirely different. It is important that we continue to talk about the past in order to pave the pathway to a promising future.