Black Innovators Who Influenced Mobility Today

In commemoration of Black History Month, SpotHero is highlighting black innovators who helped change the landscape of mobility. Below are some names you may recognize, as well as some you may not. One thing is certain: without their contributions we would all be stuck in traffic.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926): First Licensed African American, Native American Woman Pilot

Coleman had long been interested in learning to fly after hearing stories about WWI aviators from her older brother, but she was not able to find anyone in America willing to train her. Undeterred, Coleman learned French and went to France to the famous flight school Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudron. Upon her return to the U.S. Coleman became a media sensation and regularly performed as a stunt flier, appearing in airshows across the country. In addition, Coleman worked as an advocate for civil rights, refusing to perform at shows that prohibited African Americans from attending, and speaking publicly about aviation opportunities for people of color.

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961): Inventor of the Refrigerated Truck

A self-taught engineer and mechanic, Jones loved cars, particularly race cars. He was once fired from his job for driving on company time! Interestingly, his innovations have more to do with the lack of speed than an excess of it. In 1938, Jones invented a portable refrigeration unit for long haul trucks, allowing these behemoth and slow-moving vehicles to carry perishable foods long distances. His invention would go on to be a huge success, and was used during WWII as a way to preserve perishable medical supplies. Jones would continue to perfect the refrigerated truck for the rest of his career, patenting several improvements and transforming not just transportation, but the global marketplace as well.

Garrett Morgan (1877-1963): Inventor of the Modern Traffic Signal

Morgan was a lifelong inventor. Many of his early inventions and improvements focused on public safety, like the “Smoke hood,” an early version of the gas mask. Morgan was inspired to create a safer traffic signal after witnessing a serious accident at a busy intersection in Cleveland, OH, where he lived and owned a business. He patented his “Morgan signal” in 1922, adding a “warning” signal in addition to the already existing “stop” and “go,” to warn drivers they would need to slow down. The signal was so effective it is still in use a century later!

Rosa Parks (1913-2005): Civil Rights Activist for Equal Access to Public Transportation

Parks is best known for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, AL in 1955, leading to her arrest and a bus boycott that lasted more than one year. What is less well-known is that prior to her arrest, Parks was already a civil rights activist alongside her husband, Raymond Parks. A proud member of Montgomery’s NAACP, following her arrest and release, Parks helped organize the citywide bus boycott with the NAACP and the Women’s Political Council, a local organization devoted to improving access to public transit for black residents of Montgomery. Parks’ efforts received nationwide attention, and their successful boycott led to bus segregation being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1957.

Richard Spikes (1878-1963): Improved the Automatic Gear Shift and the Turn Signal 

Spikes was a gifted inventor who developed a fascination for automobiles. He patented early versions of the automatic gear shift in 1932, which would become standard in automobiles in the coming decades. Spikes is also credited with creating early versions of the turn signal that were used in automobiles in the 1910s. In addition to automotive improvements, Spikes also made improvements to trolley safety systems, the barber chair, and the modern keg tapper used to connect beer kegs to taps—which is still used today!

Carmen Turner (1931-1991): First Black Female General Manager of a Major Transportation Agency

Turner grew up in Washington DC, and she spent her professional life working in both local and national government. She started her career in the US Department of Transportation in the 1970s, working on civil rights and equal opportunity programs. She joined the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in 1977 as the Chief of Administration, before becoming the head of the organization in 1983. Under Turner’s leadership, the relatively new WMATA became one of the most successful public transportation programs in the country. Turner was commonly regarded as a kind and effective leader, and she received high praise for her hard work, most notably being named Person of the Year by The Washingtonian, and receiving the Transit Manager of the Year distinction in 1989 from The American Public Transit Association. 

Dr. Gladys West (b. 1930): Created the First Mathematical Model of Earth

Dr. West’s work as a mathematician helped pave the way for Global Positioning System technology. Through her work with the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, West led a team throughout the late 1970s to systematically map and measure the earth’s shape through the use of satellite data. West’s team then used measurements gathered from the satellites to create a mathematical model of the earth’s shape. West became one of the foremost authorities on mathematical modeling, and even published a guide on how to use satellite data and algorithms to create mathematical models in 1986! Her work earned her the acclaim of the Virginia Senate and the US Air Force, among others, and since retiring West has become an advocate for early education in STEM, speaking at schools across her home state of Virginia.

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910): Pioneer of Rail Safety and Communication 

Woods is commonly referred to as “Black Edison,” and it’s no wonder why: he was a prolific inventor and engineer. Thomas Edison even offered him a job at one point! One of Woods’ most notable contributions is the invention of the railroad telegraph in 1885, allowing train conductors to communicate with each other as well as with signal houses for the first time. He also improved an automatic brake system to be used in subways and trains, and helped develop the third rail system, enabling train cars to have electricity while running. Woods’ inventions and improvements drastically increased safety for all transportation, and many of them were later adapted for the automobile.