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Life Without Black People

Claim:   E-mail lists valuable technological innovations brought about by African-American inventors.

MIXTURE OF TRUE AND FALSE INFORMATION

Examples:

[Collected on the Internet, 2005]

LIFE WITHOUT BLACK PEOPLE

A very humorous and revealing story is told about a group of white people who were fed up with African Americans, so they joined together and wished themselves away. They passed through a deep dark tunnel and emerged in sort of a twilight zone where there is an America without black people.

At first these white people breathed a sigh of relief. At last, they said, "No more crime, drugs, violence and welfare. All of the blacks have gone!"

Then suddenly, reality set in. The "NEW AMERICA" is not America at all — only a barren land.

1. There are very few crops that have flourished because the nation was built on a slave-supported system.

2. There are no cities with tall skyscrapers because Alexander Mils, a black man, invented the elevator, and without it, one finds great difficulty reaching higher floors.

3. There are few if any cars because Richard Spikes, a black man, invented the automatic gearshift, Joseph Gambol, also black, invented the Super Charge System for Internal Combustion Engines, and Garrett A. Morgan, a black man, invented the traffic signals.

4. Furthermore, one could not use the rapid transit system because its procurer was the electric trolley, which was invented by another black man, Albert R. Robinson.

5. Even if there were streets on which cars and a rapid transit system could operate, they were cluttered with paper because an African American, Charles Brooks, invented the street sweeper.

6. There were few if any newspapers, magazines and books because John Love invented the pencil sharpener, William Purveys invented the fountain pen, and Lee Barrage invented the Type Writing Machine and W. A. Love invented the Advanced Printing Press. They were all, you guessed it, Black.

7. Even if Americans could write their letters, articles and books, they would not have been transported by mail because William Barry invented the Postmarking and Canceling Machine, William Purveys invented the Hand Stamp and Philip Downing invented the Letter Drop.

8. The lawns were brown and wilted because Joseph Smith invented the Lawn Sprinkler and John Burr the Lawn Mower.

9. When they entered their homes, they found them to be poorly ventilated and poorly heated. You see, Frederick Jones invented the Air Conditioner and Alice Parker the Heating Furnace. Their homes were also dim. But of course, Lewis Later invented the Electric Lamp, Michael Harvey invented the lantern and Granville T. Woods invented the Automatic Cut off Switch. Their homes were also filthy because Thomas W. Steward invented the Mop and Lloyd P. Ray the Dust Pan.

10. Their children met them at the door-barefooted, shabby, motley and unkempt. But what could one expect? Jan E. Matzelinger invented the Shoe Lasting Machine, Walter Sammons invented the Comb, Sarah Boone invented the Ironing Board and George T. Samon invented the Clothes Dryer.

11. Finally, they were resigned to at least have dinner amidst all of this turmoil. But here again, the food had spoiled because another Black Man, John Standard invented the refrigerator.

Now, isn't that something? What would this country be like without the contributions of Blacks, as African-Americans?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "by the time we leave for work, Americans have depended on the inventions from the minds of Blacks." Black history includes more than just slavery, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois.

PLEASE SHARE, ABUNDANTLY
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

This is a story of a little boy name Theo who woke up one morning and asked his mother, "Mom, what if there were no Black people in the world?"

Well his mother thought about that for a moment, and then said "Son, follow me around today and lets just see what it would be like if there were no Black people in the world."

Mom said, "Now go get dressed and we will get started." Theo ran to his room to put on his clothes and shoes. His mother took one look at him and said "Theo, where are your shoes, and those clothes are all wrinkled son, I must iron them."

But when she reached for the ironing board it was no longer there. You see Sarah Boone, a black woman, invented the ironing board and Jan E. Matzelinger, a black man, invented the shoe lasting machine.

"Oh well," she said, "please go and do something to your hair." Theo ran in his room to comb his hair, but the comb was not there. You see, Walter Sammons, a black man, invented the comb. Theo decided to just brush his hair, but the brush was gone. You see Lydia O. Newman, a black female, invented the brush.

Well this was a sight, no shoes, wrinkled clothes, hair a mess, even Moms hair, without the hair care inventions of Madam C.J. Walker, well you get the picture.

Mom told Theo, "lets do our chores around the house and then take a trip to the grocery store." Theo's job was to sweep the floor. He swept and swept and swept. When he reached for the dust pan, it was not there. You see, Lloyd P. Ray, a black man, invented the dust pan. So he swept his pile of dirt over in the corner and left it there.

He then decided to mop the floor, but the mop was gone. You see, Thomas W. Stewart, a black man, invented the mop.

Theo yelled to his Mom, "Mom, I'm not having any luck." "Well son," she said, "let me finish washing these clothes and we will prepare a list for the grocery store." When the wash finished, she went to place the clothes in the dryer but it was not there. You see, George T. Samon, a black man, invented the clothes dryer.

Mom asked Theo to go get a pencil and some paper to prepare their list for the market. So Theo ran for the paper and pencil but noticed the pencil lead was broken. Well he was out of luck because John Love, a black man, invented the pencil sharpener.

Mom reached for a pen, but it was not there because William Purvis, a black man, invented the fountain pen. As a matter of fact, Lee Burridge invented the type writing machine, and W. A. Lovette the advanced printing press.

Theo and his mother decided to head out to the market. Well when Theo opened the door he noticed the grass was as high as he was tall. You see, the lawn mower was invented by John Burr, a black man.

They made their way over to the car and found that it just wouldn't go. You see, Richard Spikes, a black man, invented the automatic gear shift and Joseph Gammel invented the supercharge system for internal combustion engines. They noticed that the few cars that were moving were running into each other and having wrecks because there were no traffic signals. You see, Garrett A. Morgan, a black man invented the traffic light.

Well, it was getting late, so they walked to the market, got their groceries and returned home. Just when they were about to put away the milk, eggs and butter, they noticed the refrigerator was gone. You see John Standard, a black man, invented the refrigerator. So they just left the food on the counter.

By this time, Theo noticed he was getting mighty cold. Mom went to turn up the heat, and what do you know. Alice Parker, a black female, invented the heating furnace. Even in the summer time they would have been out of luck because Frederick Jones, a black man, invented the air conditioner. It was almost time for Theo's father to arrive home. He takes the bus. But there was no bus, because it's precursor was the electric trolley, invented by another black man, Elbert R. Robinson.

He usually takes the elevator from his office on the 20th floor, but there was no elevator because Alexander Miles, a black man, invented the elevator. He also usually dropped off the office mail at a near by mailbox, but it was no longer there because Philip Downing, a black man, invented the letter drop mailbox and William Barry invented the postmarking and canceling machine.

Theo and his mother sat at the kitchen table with their heads in their hands. When the father arrived he asked, "Why are you sitting in the dark?" Why? Because Lewis Howard Latimer, a black man, invented the filament within the light bulb. Theo quickly learned what it would be like if there were no black people in the world. Not to mention if he were ever sick and needed blood. Charles Drew, a black scientist, found a way to preserve and store blood, which led to his starting the worlds first blood bank. And what if a family member had to have heart surgery? This would not have been possible without Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a black doctor, who performed the first open heart surgery.

So if you ever wonder, like Theo, where would we be without black people? Well, it's pretty plain to see. We would still be in the DARK!!!!

IF YOU GAINED ANY INSIGHT FROM THIS PLEASE PASS IT ON
 

Variations:   Another version also in circulation in 1999 presented the discussion thusly, instead of positioning it as an experience shared by Theo and his mother, as in the second example above:
This is a story of a little boy named Uchechi, who woke up one morning and asked God, "What if there were no Black people in the world?"

Well, God thought about that for a moment and then said, "Son, follow me around today and let's just see what it would be like if there were no Black people in the world. Get dressed and we will get started."
Origins:   We have been encountering this particular bit of online lore since 1997. Variously titled "A World Gears Without Black People," "Black Inventors and Inventions," "America Without Black People," and "Black History Facts," the piece has remained remarkably unchanged in that time. With the exception of its preface, the list that turns up in inboxes today is almost a carbon copy of that found in the earliest versions.

This summary of innovators and their creations is hard to classify as "True" or "False" for a number of reasons. First, it is flawed in its premise that if these African-American pioneers of manufacturing had not crafted the things they created, those items would never have been invented. Innovation does not wait upon particular inventors. If a sudden brainstorm is not experienced by one person, it will be visited upon another, as evidenced by the number of times in history where two or more people simultaneously conceived the same great idea and thereafter raced to patent and bring it to market first.

Second, the list is a mix of both accuracy and inaccuracy, even within single entries where fact and error cozy up against one another. While this compendium does outline a number of valid accomplishments, in many of the items the claims being advanced are overblown, crediting particular African-Americans with the invention of items for which they only crafted specific improvements. For example, Alexander Miles did not invent the elevator: that device was around long before he came on the scene, but he did devise an improved mechanism that governed the opening and closing of its doors, and he fashioned a key safety feature that automatically shut doors to the shaft when the car was on another floor, thereby keeping the muddle-headed from wandering into open shafts and thence their
deaths.

Third, further clogging the assessment process is the realization that very few products can be said to have been the brainchild of just one person. Invention is largely the process of building on the technologies devised or improved by others, turning them to new purposes or using them in different ways. Therefore, many technologies don't really have definable start points — for instance, one would be hard pressed to name the inventor of the automobile. The automobile came into being through a process of gradual evolution rather arrived on the scene in completed form, in that as the components and design of self-propelled vehicles were reworked and refined, what would eventually become the automobile grew ever closer to being recognizable as the contraption we now know it as. There is no one definable moment in the automobile's history which one could without just fear of contradiction point to and say "Here is where it began." In many instances, the people who get credit for "inventing" technologies are the ones who come up with the key steps that make them commercially viable or are the first to successfully market them, even though many, many other minds were involved in the process.

Given that there is no easy, short answer to the "Is it true?" question posed by those who receive this list and are left wondering about the claims made in the e-mailed summary of achievements, we'll have to go at it the long way.
1. There are very few crops that have flourished because the nation was built on a slave-supported system.
Almost the opposite is true: with the exception of cotton and tobacco, which are labor-intensive crops throughout their growing processes and so require an ever-present workforce to raise, just about every major U.S. crop would have proved economically unfeasible under a slave-supported agrarian system. Crops such as wheat and corn require vast amounts of labor at the planting and harvesting stages, but precious little attention in between. Consequently, in pre-mechanized days, growers of just about anything that wasn't cotton or tobacco would have faced financial ruin if they'd opted to keep slaves rather than hire extra hands for those two short but widely-separated intensive bursts of activity. Slaves had to be fed, housed, clothed, and medicated year round; they would have represented a constant and substantial financial drain on farmers who tried to use them as their workforce.
2. There are no cities with tall skyscrapers because Alexander Mils, a black man, invented the elevator, and without it, one finds great difficulty reaching higher floors.
As mentioned above, Alexander Miles (not Mils) did not invent the elevator. He devised certain improvements in elevator technology, and even those improvements had nothing to do with moving the cars up and down, which at least would have been a bit more in resonance with the "invented the elevator" claim. His contributions to elevator technology had to do with their doors.
3. There are few if any cars because Richard Spikes, a black man, invented the automatic gearshift, Joseph Gambol, also black, invented the Super Charge System for Internal Combustion Engines, and Garrett A. Morgan, a black man, invented the traffic signals.
Richard Spikes crafted an improved automatic gear shift in 1932, but he did not invent this bit of technology.

We've so far been unable to locate any information about Joseph Gambol (or Gammel; we've seen it spelled both ways) or the "Super Charge System for Internal Combustion Engines," and so at the moment we can't offer any insight into this entry.

Garrett A. Morgan did invent the automated traffic signal in 1923, but the first known traffic signal was designed in 1868 by J.P. Knight in England. Morgan sold the rights to his patent to General Electric for $40,000, which was an astonishing sum back in those days.
4. Furthermore, one could not use the rapid transit system because its procurer was the electric trolley, which was invented by another black man, Albert R. Robinson.
Elbert (not Albert) R. Robinson invented an electric railway trolley in 1893. We're not sure, however, if his was the first invention of its kind.
5. Even if there were streets on which cars and a rapid transit system could operate, they were cluttered with paper because an African American, Charles Brooks, invented the street sweeper.
In 1896 Charles Brooks devised improvements to street sweeper trucks, but not the vehicles themselves. His was a refinement of existing technology, not an invention of the technology itself.
6. There were few if any newspapers, magazines and books because John Love invented the pencil sharpener, William Purveys invented the fountain pen, and Lee Barrage invented the Type Writing Machine and W. A. Love invented the Advanced Printing Press. They were all, you guessed it, Black.
In 1897 John Lee Love invented a simple, portable pencil sharpener he dubbed the "Love Sharpener." Yet it was not the first implement of this nature: the manual pencil sharpener was invented in 1847 by Therry des Estwaux and was at least conceived of in 1828, the year a Frenchman named Bernard Lassimone applied for a patent on one.

William B. Purvis (not Purveys) patented a number of improvements to the fountain pen in 1890, but fountain pens themselves had been around since 1809.

Lee Burridge (not Barrage) fashioned a number of typewriter improvements, but he did not invent the typewriter — the first patent for such a machine was issued in 1868 to Christopher Latham Sholes.

Finding information about W. A. Love has also so far proved difficult. However, he certainly didn't invent the printing press; the first of those was used in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg.
7. Even if Americans could write their letters, articles and books, they would not have been transported by mail because William Barry invented the Postmarking and Canceling Machine, William Purveys invented the Hand Stamp and Philip Downing invented the Letter Drop.
William Barry invented a postmarking and canceling machine in 1897, but the first of that sort of contraption was created in England in 1857 by Pearson Hill.

Philip Downing did invent a particular kind of letter drop mailbox in 1891, but such boxes had been around at least since 1858.

William Purvis (not Purveys) did design a self-inking hand stamp in 1883, but the first postal handstamp is credited to Henry Bishop, Postmaster General of Great Britain, in the year 1661.
8. The lawns were brown and wilted because Joseph Smith invented the Lawn Sprinkler and John Burr the Lawn Mower.
Joseph Smith did indeed patent the swiveling lawn sprinkler in 1897; however, its companion in this entry does not fare as well. While it is true that in 1899 John Albert Burr did devise an improved rotary blade lawn mower, the patent for a "machine for mowing lawns, etc." dates to 1830, to a British engineer named Edwin Beard Budding.
9. When they entered their homes, they found them to be poorly ventilated and poorly heated. You see, Frederick Jones invented the Air Conditioner and Alice Parker the Heating Furnace. Their homes were also dim. But of course, Lewis Later invented the Electric Lamp, Michael Harvey invented the lantern and Granville T. Woods invented the Automatic Cut off Switch. Their homes were also filthy because Thomas W. Steward invented the Mop and Lloyd P. Ray the Dust Pan.
Frederick McKinley Jones did not invent the air conditioner (that honor properly belongs to Willis Carrier, who patented it in 1902), but he did design the portable air conditioning unit used at military field hospitals in World War II. It allowed the military to store perishable life-saving medicines and blood serum close to the battlefield, even in the Pacific theater of operations where temperatures and humidity would otherwise have made short work of such products, and thus of the men dependent on receiving them.

Furnaces have been around for thousands of years, dating back at least as far as to the Romans. While Alice Parker did in 1919 secure a patent on a furnace, hers was far from the first: by 1888, more than 4,000 patents on heating stoves and furnaces had been granted in the U.S.

In 1882 Lewis Howard Latimer (not Later) did indeed invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp, but he did not invent the lightbulb itself.

Michael Harvey is another of those names we're having trouble locating information on, but we can safely say he didn't invent the lantern, as those devices had been around for centuries, if not millennia.

Granville T. Woods did in 1889 invent an automatic safety cut-out for electric circuits, but we're not sure if his was the first of its kind.

In 1893 Thomas W. Stewart (not Steward) crafted a self-wringing form of mop, but did not invent the mop itself.

In 1897 Lloyd P. Ray invented not the dust pan, but the long-handled dust pan, a device that allowed the sweeper to not have to bend over to hold the pan to the floor so as to collect the sweepings.
10. Their children met them at the door-barefooted, shabby, motley and unkempt. But what could one expect? Jan E. Matzelinger invented the Shoe Lasting Machine, Walter Sammons invented the Comb, Sarah Boone invented the Ironing Board and George T. Samon invented the Clothes Dryer.
In 1883 Jan Ernst Matzeliger (not Matzelinger) did indeed come up with an original innovation that changed how a particular item was made: he devised a machine that would sew the sole to the upper of a shoe in about a minute. His "shoe lasting" machine changed the process of how shoes were made by mechanizing a part of their manufacture that previously had to be done by hand and thereby cut the cost of making shoes by half.

Combs have been around about as long as humans have; archaeologists are hard-pressed to find a burial mound or grave of any age that doesn't contain them. Walter Sammons invented a heated comb, a device to help with the straightening of hair.

In 1892 Sarah Boone invented an improvement to the ironing board, not the board itself. Her brainchild was a curved narrow board that allowed for the sleeves of ladies' garments to be stretched over it.

George T. Sampson (not Samon) was indeed granted the first U.S. patent for a clothes dryer, in 1892.
11. Finally, they were resigned to at least have dinner amidst all of this turmoil. But here again, the food had spoiled because another Black Man, John Standard invented the refrigerator.
In 1891 John Standard came up with an improvement to the refrigerator, but not the refrigerator itself, which was first patented in Scotland in 1748 by William Cullen.

In researching all these items, we could not help but conclude that someone's zeal to praise black inventors instead potentially set up these innovators for ridicule. While only a small percentage of the general population has more than a smattering of knowledge about the histories of various products, that smattering is enough for the rest of us to realize that claims of a particular person's having invented the comb are ludicrous — a moment's thought about how long those implements have been around quickly reveals that assertion as farcical. (The same could be said of claims about the invention of the dust pan or the mop, although those assertions are slightly less obvious in their ludicrosity.) And with the "You've got to be kidding" dismissal of any one item comes the danger of a "Yeah, right" response to all the rest, the one bad item having poisoned perception of the others.

Those who push past that set-back to do a little delving into some of the compendium's other trumpetings are quickly brought to the realization that this summary of African-American achievement time and again flat-out states that so-and-so "invented" a common item when history shows that person only crafted an improvement to a particular piece of technology, making his or her contribution on par with that of any number of non-African-American inventors that no one other than business scholars now has any awareness of. One who gets that far into the research process is likely to be left asking "Is this the best that can be said of African-American inventors, that almost all of their contributions amounted to no more than small improvements to already existing technologies? Does the puffery inherent to this summary mean there was nothing substantial to celebrate, else the list would provide details of those in preference to making the wild overstatements it does?"

Which brings us to the twin sadnesses of the matter: the list serves to obscure African-American contributions that should have been celebrated by shifting attention to items that were not nearly as vital, and makes black men and women who invented great things appear trivial by highlighting only their lesser innovations.

For example, you have Richard Spikes (of the improved automatic gear shift discussed above) to thank for your car's turn signals. He invented automatic directional lights, which were first installed on a Pierce Arrow automobile in 1913.

In 1935 Frederick McKinley Jones (of the portable air conditioning unit) invented the first refrigerated truck. He kept tinkering at his innovation, eventually developing a highly successful automatic refrigeration system for long-haul carriers. Prior to Jones' invention, many people were primarily limited to eating foods grown locally, because perishable goods could not be efficiently transported over longer distances.

Percy Julian came up with a soy protein concoction that put out gas and oil fires not extinguishable by water. This material, known as "bean soup" aboard U.S. Navy ships, saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II. That same man, Percy Julian, came up with a way to synthesize cortisone, a sterol that has eased the sufferings of millions. Prior to his work, sterols cost several hundreds of dollars per gram; his process brought that cost down to 20 cents per gram.

Even the relatively minor innovations to existing technologies for which the African-Americans listed above were responsible are important and vital in their own way, of course, but the "LIFE WITHOUT BLACK PEOPLE" piece misses its target due to too many inaccuracies and trivialities. There is much to laud in the roll call of black inventors, and someone should do them better service than the above-quoted article does.

Barbara "inventing my spleen" Mikkelson

Last updated:   24 May 2011

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Sources:

    Aaseng, Nathan.   Black Inventors.
    New York: Facts on File, 1997.   ISBN 0-8160-3407-9.

    Dawson, Jim.   "Achievements of Black Scientists Often Missing from the History Books."
    The [Minneapolis] Star Tribune.   16 February 2000.   (p. A16).

    Foy, David M.   Great Discoveries and Inventions by African-Americans.
    Edgewood, MD: Duncan & Duncan, 1998.

    McKissack, Patricia and Frederick.   African-American Inventors.
    Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56294-468-1.

    Sullivan, Otha Richard.   African-American Inventors.
    New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.   ISBN 0-471-14804-0.