Oftentimes, the contributions and achievements of black individuals in our country go overlooked or ignored. This Black History Month, Indiana Senate Democrats are highlighting black men and women who have broken down barriers, made strides for equality and helped propel our country forward through innovation, activism, public service and more.
Dr. Charles Drew
Dr. Charles Drew was born in 1904 in Washington, DC and was the eldest son of a carpet layer. He is known as the “father of blood blanks,” credited with pioneering methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion. He spearheaded the organization of the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. and directed the blood plasma programs of both the United States and Great Britain during World War II. Not only did his collection and processing of blood plasma result in the shipments of life-saving materials overseas to treat casualties in the war, but it would also lay the foundation for successful blood and plasma banks for the world.
Shirley Chrisholm was an educator, author and politician. Three years after the 1964 Voting Rights Act was approved, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, Shirley was elected as the first black woman to serve as in the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12th district. Chrisholm went on to make history again when she became the first black person to seek the Democratic nomination and run for president. Throughout her career in public service, she fought for social equality, educational opportunities and justice. Eleven years after Chrisholm passed away at the age of 80, she was awarded the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom for her amazing work in public service.
Henrietta Lacks’ story and contribution to our country is a bit more complicated and contentious than the other black historical figures mentioned here. Born in 1920 in Virginia, Henrietta was a mother of four when she was admitted into The John Hopkins Hospital in 1951 due to bleeding. It was soon discovered that Lacks had a tumor on her cervix and she began being treated for cervical cancer. During treatment, a sample of Henrietta’s cells was collected and sent to a lab to be studied by a cancer researcher named Dr. George Grey. Though the cells were expected to die like the cells in other samples that had been retrieved, they did not; instead, they began doubling every day or so. Lacks’ cells went on to be used to study viruses, understand the human genome, test the effects of radiation, help develop the polio vaccine and more. The cells taken from Henrietta have had an astounding impact on our world and developments in medicine. Unfortunately, this amazing contribution from Lacks is riddled with conflict as Henrietta’s cells were taken and used without her informed consent. The fact that Henrietta was neither paid nor initially recognized for the role her cells played in moving our country forward is yet another reason her story remains shrouded in controversy.
Judge Zilthia Mae Perkins Jimison
Zilthia Jimison was a Hoosier who broke down barriers right here in our state. After passing the Indiana Bar, Jimison went on to have a prosperous career in law and public service. Hailed as an outstanding trial attorney, she went on to become the first African American woman to serve as a judge on the Marion County Superior Court. She actively volunteered and engaged with nonprofit organizations in the community and was the State Chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. She also served on the Indianapolis City Council and is remembered for pioneering the Drug Treatment Court in Indiana. Jimison was a black Hoosier icon that dedicated her life to public service and is remembered not only for the work that she did, but the barriers she broke down.
During World War I, Bessie Coleman began hearing stories about pilots in the war and developed a fascination with aviation. Coleman sought to enroll in flying school in hopes of becoming a pilot but was denied entrance to those schools in the United States. Determined, she decided to teach herself French and relocate to France to achieve her goal there. Despite being up against both the racial and gender discrimination of the time, Bessie Coleman found success in France and went on to become the first black pilot in the world. When she returned to America, she became a stunt flyer and became famous for the specialized tricks she performed while flying. In 1922, she became the first African American woman in America to make a public flight.
Saddled with only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan moved from Kentucky to Ohio as a teenager to look for work. He found success and began working for a wealthy handyman, but soon went on to work in several sewing machine factories. There, he was able to learn the inner workings of sewing machines, which led to him obtaining the first of many patents for his improvement of sewing machines. Soon after, he opened his own repair business. Following his success, he founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company where he sold a hair-straightening cream that he created. In 1916, Morgan created a breathing device that made breathing in the presence of fire, smoke and gas safer. His gas mask would come to be used by soldiers in World War I and firefighters. Seven years after this notable invention, Morgan created a new, safer stop light that included a warning light. This played a huge role in the reduction of automobile accidents and is one of Morgan’s most notable inventions that he patented. Throughout his life, Morgan would eventually obtain 29 patents for his inventions.