The first Africans arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. They were recorded as “20 and odd Negroes.” These Africans had been stolen from a Portuguese slave ship, transported to an English warship flying a Dutch flag and sold to colonial settlers in American. The schooner Clotilda (often misspelled Clotilde) was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving at Mobile Bay, in autumn 1859 or July 9, 1860
The end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments meant that all black inventors now had the right to apply for patents. The result over the next few decades was a virtual explosion of patented inventions by black mechanics, blacksmiths, domestic workers, and farm laborers — many of them ex-slaves. By 1895 the U.S. Patent Office was able to advertise a special exhibit of inventions patented by black inventors.
The list of new inventions patented by blacks after the Civil War reveals what kinds of occupations they held and in which sectors of the labor force they were concentrated. Agricultural implements, devices for easing domestic chores, and devices related to the railroad industry were common subjects for black inventors. Some patented inventions developed in the course of operating businesses like barbershops, restaurants, and tailoring shops.
Researching African-American history is far tougher than it should be. Marginalized stories don’t get written down, and then there was the whole Lost Cause thing, actively eradicating what stories had been recorded. For those in far-flung parts fortunate enough not to have have attended a school whose history books were written or chosen by these [sfx bleep], the Lost Cause was people like the Daughters of the Confederacy purposefully rewriting history. Their version of events was that civil war generals were heroes, slaves were generally treated well and were happy to work for their enslavers, and that the war was about state’s rights, not the immorality of owning another human being. It was from this movement that my hometown of Richmond, VA got a beautiful tree-lined avenue of expensive row houses and every third block had a statue of a civil war general. the number of Confederate memorial installations peaked around 1910 — 50 years after the end of the Civil War and at the height of Jim Crow, an era defined by segregation and disenfranchisement laws against black Americans. Confederate installations spiked again in the 1950s and 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. It weren’t nothing to do with celebrating ancestors who fought for what they believed in, which you shouldn’t do if your ancestor was so stunningly wrong in their beliefs, it was about telling African-Americans that you haven’t forgotten when they were under your boot and you’d bring all that back tomorrow if you could. The statues are on my mind today because I was just in a networking event with Noah Scalin and Mark Cheatham, the artists who created a now iconic (regionally) iconic image of the empty plinth where the Robert E Lee statue stood. Scalin was the guy that started the Skull A Day website, if you ever saw that, and my husband helped him do an art installation in Times Square.
But my squirrel brain was talking about the inherent difficulty of researching this topic. Details were sparse for the male inventors and it wasn’t uncommon for me to find the same photo used on articles about different people, and if I ever, say, shared an image of Benjamin Montgomery with the caption Henry Boyd, many many apologies for the inconvenience. But in researching black *women inventors, I’d be lucking to *find a picture, misattributed or otherwise. Or their story or even enough of a bio to fill out aa 3×5 index card. I got nothing, bupkis, el zilcho. Well, not nothing-nothing, but not a fraction of what I wanted to present to you. One of my goals with YBOF is to amplify the stories of POC, women, and the LGBT (see my recent Tiktok about the amazing Gladys Bently for the trifecta), but I guess if I really mean to do that, I’m going to have to abandon Google in favor of an actual library, when I no longer have to be wary of strangers trying to kill me with their selfishness. That aside, I love a library. I used to spend summer afternoons at the one by my house in high school – it was cool, quiet, full of amazing knowledge and new stories, and best of all, my 4 little sisters had no interest in going. When you come from a herd of six kids, anything you can have exclusively to yourself, even if it’s because no one else wants it, immediately becomes your favorite thing.
So I don’t have as much as I wanted about Black female inventors of the pre-Civil War era, but I did find one real gem that I almost gave the entire episode to, but we’ll come to her. As with male inventors, it can be a little sketch to say this one was first or that one was first. There are a number of reasons for this. Black people kept in bondage were expressly prohibited from being issued patents by a law in 18??. Some would change their names in an attempt to hide their race, some would use white proxies, and of course many Black inventors had their ideas stolen, often by their enslavers, who believed that they owned not only the person, but all of their work output, that they owned the inventor’s ideas as much as they owned the crops he harvested, the horseshoes he applied, or the goods he built.
The other big thing that makes early patent history tricky is something I’ve dealt with personally, twice – a good ol’ fashioned structure fire. A fire broke out in a temporary patent office and even though there was a fire station right next door, 10,000 early patents were lost, as were about 7000 patent models, which used to be part of the application process. Long story short, we don’t, and probably can’t, know definitively who was the first, second, and third Black woman to receive a patent, so I’m going to take what names I *can find and put them in chronological order, though surely there are some inventors whose names have been lost, possibly forever.
Martha Jones is believed to be the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, for her improvement to the “Corn Husker, Sheller.” Her invention made it possible to husk, shell, cut and separate corn all in one step, saving time and labor. This would be for dry or field corn, the kind used to make cornbread, not sweet corn, the kind you eat on the bone in the summer. This invention laid a foundation stone for advancements in automatic agricultural processes that are still in use today. I can show you the schematics from Jones’ patent, but as for Jones herself, I’ve got sweet Fanny Adams. But I can tell you that her patent came 59 years after the first white woman got hers in 1809, for a weaving process for bonnets, which I think also illustrates what constituted a “problem” in each woman’s life. On the gender side of things, Jones’ patent came 47 years after Thomas Jennings became the first black man to receive a U.S. Patent in 1821 for the precursor to dry-cleaning, whose details we lost in that fire.
Mary Jones de Leon
Next up, or so it is believed, was another Jones (it’s like Wales in here today), Mary Jones De Leon. In 1873, De Leon was granted U.S. patent No. 140,253 for her invention titled ”Cooking Apparatus.” De Leon, who lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and is buried outside Atlanta, GA, created an apparatus for heating or cooking food either by dry heat or steam, or both. It was an early precursor to the steam tables now used in buffets and cafeterias. Remember buffets? We’ll be explaining them to our grandkids. You’d go to a restaurant and eat out of communal troughs with strangers for $10. By the way, if I were to say ‘chafing dish’ and you thought of a throw-away line from the 1991 movie Hot Shot, “No, a crock pot is for cooking all day,” that’s why we’re friends. If you didn’t, don‘t worry, we’re still friends.
The third patent in our particular pattern went to Judy Woodford Reed, and that patent is about the only records we have for her. She improved existing machines for working bread dough with her “Dough Kneader and Roller” in 1884. Her design mixed the dough more evenly, while keeping it covered, which would basically constitute sterile conditions back then. Reed appears in the 1870 Federal Census as a 44 year old seamstress near Charlottesville, Virginia, along with her husband Allen, a gardener, and their five children. Sometime between 1880 and 1885, Allen Reed died, and Judy W. Reed, calling herself “widow of Allen,” moved to Washington, D. C. It is unlikely that Reed was able to read, write, or even sign her name. The census refers to Judy and Allen both as illiterate, and her patent is signed with an “X”. That might have actually worked to her favor. Lots of whites, about 1 in 5, were illiterate back then, too, and an X reveals neither race nor gender. The first African-American woman to fully sign a patent was Sarah E. Goode of Chicago. Bonus fact: illiteracy is why we use an X to mean a kiss at the bottom of a letter or greeting card. People who couldn’t sign their name to a contract or legal document would mark it with an X and kiss it to seal their oath. Tracing the origin of O meaning hug is entirely unclear, though, and theories abound.
Sarah E. Goode
Sarah Elisabeth Goode obtained a patent in 1885 for a Cabinet-bed, a “sectional bedsteads adapted to be folded together when not in use, so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded.” Details continue to be sparse, but we know that as of age 5 in 1860, she was free and living in Ohio. She moved to Chicago 10 years later and 10 years after that, married a man named Archibald, who was a carpenter, as her father had been. They had some kids, as people often do, though we don’t know how many.
If they had many kids or lived in a small space for the number of kids they had, that could have been what motivated Goode to create a very early version of the cool desk that turns into a bed things you can see online that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Goode’s invention had hinged sections that were easily raised or lowered. When not functioning as a bed, the invention could easily be used as a desk with small compartments for storage, ideal for a small city apartment, especially if there were hella kids in there.
We have a bit more on another Sarah inventor, this time Sarah Boone of NC. Born into bondage in 1832, Sarah may have acquired her freedom by marrying James Boone, a free Black man, in 1847. Together, they had eight children and worked to help the Underground Railroad. Soon the family, along with Sarah’s widowed mother, made their way north to New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah worked as a dressmaker and James as a bricklayer until his death in the 1870s. They’d done well enough for themselves to purchase their own home. Far removed from the strictures and structures of enslavement, Sarah became a valued member of her community and began taking reading and writing lessons.
It was through her workaday life as a dressmaker that she invented a product you might well have in your home today, the modern-day ironing board. Quick personal aside in an episode that’s already chock-full of them–did anyone else marry military or former military and make your spouse do all the ironing because you assume they’d be better at it from having to do their uniforms? I can’t be the only one. Back to Sarah Boone, who wanted “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”
You might think the ironing board didn’t *need to be “invented,” that it was just one of those things everybody kinda just had, but no. Prior to Boone, you’d put bits of wood between the backs of two chairs, like a makeshift sawhorse. And anyone who’s ever used a makeshift sawhorse only to have it slide apart out from under them or end up sawing into their dining room table will attest that there was indeed room for improvement. She began by creating a narrower, curved board that could slip into the sleeves of dresses and shirts, with padding to stop the texture of the wooden base from being imprinted onto the fabric, and the whole thing collapsed for easy storage.
With a bit of help from other dressmakers, she finalized the design for which she’d be awarded her patent in 1892. Such a simple device was a boon to many a homemaker, though there remains the extent to which she profited from the invention, particularly as they became a product for mass distribution by companies. Even so, we know that it was soon an indispensable household device and made manufacturers wealthy.
Lyda Newman is remembered for two things, patented the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles in 1898 and her activism in the women’s voting rights movement of the early 20th century – she was a key organizer of a Black branch of the Woman Suffrage Party, which was trying to give women the legal right to vote. We know she was born in Ohio sometime between 1865 and 1885, which is a helluva range for history so relatively recent, and that she spent most of her life living in New York City, working as a hairdresser.
As a hairdresser, and an owner of a head of hair herself, Newman wanted the process of brushing hair to be more hygienic and efficient. Most hairbrushes at the time were made using animal hair, the same kind you might get in shaving brushes or paint brushes. Now imagine trying to get knots out with a shaving brush. Animal-based bristles were too soft for the job, which is where we get the old trope/advice of 100 strokes – it took that many to get the job done. And that was for white woman. These brushes were practically useless for the thicker textures of African American hair. Animal hair also harbored bacteria like it’s nobody’s business, which is unfortunate since it was also used to bristle toothbrushes and, oh yeah, back in the day, you’d have a single household toothbrush that everyone shared. Newman’s brush used synthetic fibers, which were more durable and easier to clean, in evenly spaced rows of bristles with open slots to clear debris away from the hair into a recessed compartment. The back could be opened with a button for cleaning out the compartment.
This wasn’t a gimmick or fly-by-night idea. Newman’s invention changed the hair-care industry by making hairbrushes less expensive and easier to manufacture. This paved the way for other Black inventors in the hair-care space to actually *create the black hair care industry, chief among them, Sarah Breedlove. Don’t recognize the name? What if I call her Madam C.J. Walker?
Madam CJ Walker
Well, I’m gonna tell you about her either way. Breedlove, born in 1867 in Louisiana, was the first child in her family born into freedom, but found herself an orphan at age seven after both parents died of yellow fever. She lived with a brother-in-law, who abused her, before marrying Moses McWilliams at age 14 to get away from him. Sarah was a mother at 17 and a widow at 20, so on the whole, not having a good time of it. And to top it all off, her hair was falling out.
She developed a product to treat the unspecified scalp disease that caused it, made of petroleum jelly, sulfur, and a little perfume to make it smell better. And it worked! She called it Madame C.J.Walker Wonderful Hair Grower (she was now married to Charles Walker) and along with Madame C.J.Walker Vegetable Shampoo, began selling door-to-door to other African-American women suffering from the same disease. 5 years later, she set up the Madame C.J.Walker Manufacturing Company in the US, and later expanded her business to Central America and the Caribbean. She recruited 25,000 black women by the early 1900s to act as door-to-door beauty consultants across North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Walker was the first one using the method known today as direct sales marketing to distribute and sell her products, a method adopted later on by Avon, TupperWare, and others. And she paid well, too! You could earn $25 a week with Walker, a damn site better than $2 per week as a domestic servant. Her workforce would grow to be 40,000 strong. So don’t be telling me that paying a living wage is bad for business.
Walker didn’t keep her success to herself, but used her wealth to support African-American institutions, the black YMCA, helped people with their mortgages, donated to orphanages and senior citizens homes, and was a believer in the power of education. Now be sure you don’t do as I am wont to do and accidentally conflate Madame CJ Walker with Maggie Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank and the first African American woman to serve as a bank president, and an advocate for the disabled, because she deserves coverage of her own.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason
As I was searching for black female inventors, I came across one listicle with a paragraph on a woman the author claimed helped “invent” the city of Los Angeles. That’s a bit of a stretch, I thought to myself, but as I read the story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, I became so utterly fascinated, I almost flipped the script to do the episode entirely about her. I did not, as you’ve plainly noticed, since I’d already done primary research for the first six pages of an eight page script.
Biddy was born into slavery in 1818 in Georgia, maybe. We do know she spent most of her early life on a plantation owned by Robert Smithson. During her teenage years, she learned domestic and agricultural skills, as well as herbal medicine and midwifery from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions of other female slaves. Her knowledge and skill made her beneficial to both the slaves and the plantation owners. According to some authors, Biddy was either given to or sold to Robert Smith and his wife Rebecca in Mississippi in the 1840s. Biddy had three children, Ellen, Ann, and Harriet. Their paternity is unknown, but it’s been speculated that Ann and Harriet were fathered by Smith.
Smith, a Mormon convert, followed the call of church leaders to settle in the West to establish a new Mormon community in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah in what was at the time still part of Mexico. The Mormon church was a-okay with slavery, encouraging people to treat the enslaved kindly, as they were lesser beings who needed the white man’s protection. In 1848, 30-year-old Mason *walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan. Along the route west Mason’s responsibilities included setting up and breaking camp, cooking the meals, herding livestock, and serving as a midwife as well as taking care of her three young daughters aged ten, four, and an infant. Utah didn’t last long for the Smiths and 3 years later, they set out in a 150-wagon caravan for San Bernardino, California to establish another Mormon community. Ignoring warnings that slavery was illegal in California, Smith gathered his livestock and people they treated like livestock and schlepped them along. Although California joined the United States as a free state in 1850, the laws around slavery were complicated and there was a lot of forced labor to be found. Indigenous people could be forced to work as “contract laborers.” How, you ask? Well this made we swear loudly when I read it. Every weekend, local authorities would arrest intoxicated Natives on dubious charges and take them to what was essentially a slave mart and auction off their labor for the coming week. If they were paid at the end of that week, they were usually paid in alcohol so they could get drunk and be arrested to be auctioned off again.
Along the way, biddy Mason met free blacks who urged her to legally contest her slave status once she reached California, a free state. When they got to Cali, Mason met more free blacks, like her lifelong friends Robert and Minnie Owens, who told her the same thing. Smith must have noticed this, because a few years later, fearing the loss of his slaves, he decided to move the whole kit and caboodle to Texas, a slave state. This was obviously real bad news for Mason and the other enslaved people, but thankfully Mason had the Owens on her side, particularly since her now 17 year old daughter was in love with their son. The law was on her side, too. The California Fugitive Slave Act, enacted in 1852, allowed slave owners to temporarily hold enslaved persons in California and transport them back to their home state, but this law wouldn’t have covered Smith because he wasn’t from Texas. When Robert Owens told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that there were people being illegally held in bondage and being taken back to a slave state, the sheriff gathered a posse, including Owens, his sons, and cattleman from Owens’ ranch, and cut Smith off at the pass, literally Cajon Pass, and prevented him from leaving the state. The sheriff was armed with a legal document, a writ of habeus corpus, signed by Judge Benjamin Hayes.
On January 19, 1856 she petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children. Their fate was now in the hands of Judge Hayes. You wouldn’t expect Hayes to be on Mason’s side in a dispute against Smith. Hayes hailed from a slave state and had owned slaves himself, plus in his time as a journalist, he’s written pro-Mormon articles. The trial started with a damning statement from Biddy’s eldest daughter Hannah, herself a mother of a newborn, saying she wanted to go to Texas. The sheriff spoke to her afterwards and found she was terrified of Smith and had said what she was told to say. She wasn’t wrong to be scared. Smith threatened Mason’s lawyer and bribed him to leave the case. Smith’s son and hired men trail hands went to the jail where Mason and her family were being kept safe and tried to intimidate the jailer. They also threatened the Owens family and a neighborhood grocer and a doctor. They said ‘If this case isn’t resolved on Southern principles, you’ll all pay the price, all people of color.’
Judge Hayes…he wasn’t having any of this. Technically, Mason and her children had also become free the minute they stepped into California. The new California constitution stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude unless for the punishment of crimes shall ever be tolerated in this state.” However, lacking options and probably unaware of her full rights, Mason continued to serve in the Smith household. Smith claimed Mason and the others had stayed because they were “members of his family” who voluntarily offered to go with him to Texas. Mason, as a non-white person, was legally barred from testifying against the white Smith in court, so Judge Hayes took her into his chambers along with two trustworthy local gentlemen who acted as observers to depose her. He asked her only whether she was going voluntarily, and what she said was, ‘I always do what I have been told, but I have always been afraid of this trip to Texas.”
Smith fled to Texas before the trial could conclude. On January 19, Judge Hays ruled in favor of Mason. “And it further appearing by satisfactory proof to the Judge here, that all the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free and cannot be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, it is therefore argued that they are entitled to their freedom and are free forever.” He hoped they would “become settled and go to work for themselves—in peace and without fear.”
Okay, now we’re getting to the part of Biddy Mason’s story that the listicle writer used to include her in a gallery of inventrixes. Mason and her family moved to Los Angeles, then a dusty little town of only 2,000 or so residents, less than 20 of whom were black, where she worked as midwife and nurse. As the town grew, so did her business. Basically, if you were having a baby, Biddy Mason was delivering it. Well, her friend Dr. Griffin probably helped, but we’re hear to talk about Biddy. After tending to hundreds of births and illnesses, she was known about town as Aunt Biddy. As a midwife, Mason was able to cross class and color lines and she viewed everyone as part of her extended family. In her big black medicine bag, she carried the tools of her trade, and the papers Judge Hayes had given her affirming that she was free, just in case.
By 1866, she had saved enough money to buy a property on Spring Street. Her daughter Ellen remembered that her mother firmly told her family that “the first homestead must never be sold.” She wanted her family to always have a home to call their own. My family is the same way – if you can own land, even if it’s an empty lot, do. Mason’s small wood frame house at 311 Spring Street was not just a family home, it became a “refuge for stranded and needy settlers,” a daycare center for working women, and a civic meeting place. In 1872, a group of black Angelenos founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church at her house and they met there until they were able to move to their own building.
She also continued to invest in real estate, while always making sure to give back. According to the Los Angeles Times:
“She was a frequent visitor to the jail, speaking a word of cheer and leaving some token and a prayerful hope with every prisoner. In the slums of the city, she was known as “Grandma Mason,” and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles. She paid taxes and all expenses on church property to hold it for her people. During the flood of the early eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring Streets. By the terms of this order, all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill.”
Eventually she was able to buy 10 acres, on which she built rental homes and eventually a larger commercial building she rented out. That land she invested in and developed is now the heart of downtown L.A. three substantial plots near what is now Grand Central Market as well as land on San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo. Mason was a shrewd businesswoman too. Los Angeles was booming, and rural Spring Street was becoming crowded with shops and boarding houses. In 1884, she sold the north half of her Spring Street property for $1,500 and had a mixed-use building built on the other half. She sold a lot she had purchased on Olive Street for $2,800, turning a tidy profit considering she’d bought it for less than $400. In 1885, she deeded a portion of her remaining Spring Street property to her grandsons “for the sum of love and affection and ten dollars.” She signed the deed with her customary flourished “X.” Though she was a successful real estate pioneer and nurse, who stressed the importance of education for her children and grandchildren, and taught herself Spanish, she had never learned to read or write.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason died 1891, one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. For reasons never fully explained, she was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery. While you can’t visit her grave, you can visit the mini-park created in her honor. Designed by landscape architects Katherine Spitz and Pamela Burton, an 80-foot-long poured concrete wall, created by artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, displays a timeline of Biddy’s life, illustrated with images like wagon wheels and a midwife’s bag, as well as images such as an early survey map of Los Angeles and Biddy’s freedom papers, from the northernmost end of the wall with the text “Biddy Mason born a slave,” all the way down to “Los Angeles mourns and reveres Grandma Mason.” If you’re ever down near the Bradbury Building on Spring street, get some pictures for me.