One group of prolific innovators, however, has been largely ignored by history: black inventors born or forced into American slavery. Though U.S. patent law was created with color-blind language to foster innovation, the patent system consistently excluded these inventors from recognition.
As a law professor and a licensed patent attorney, I understand both the importance of protecting inventions and the negative impact of being unable to use the law to do so. But despite patents being largely out of reach to them throughout early U.S. history, both slaves and free African-Americans did invent and innovate.
Why patents matter
In many countries around the world, innovation is fostered through a patent system. Patents give inventors a monopoly over their invention for a limited time period, allowing them, if they wish, to make money through things like sales and licensing.
The patent system has long been the heart of America’s innovation policy. As a way to recoup costs, patents provide strong incentives for inventors, who can spend millions of dollars and a significant amount of time developing a invention.
The history of patents in America is older than the U.S. Constitution, with several colonies granting patents years before the Constitution was created. In 1787, however, members of the Constitutional Convention opened the patent process up to people nationwide by drafting what has come to be known as the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. It allows Congress:
“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
This language gives inventors exclusive rights to their inventions. It forms the foundation for today’s nationwide, federal patent system, which no longer allows states to grant patents.
Though the language itself was race-neutral, like many of the rights set forth in the Constitution, the patent system didn’t apply for black Americans born into slavery. Slaves were not considered American citizens and laws at the time prevented them from applying for or holding property, including patents. In 1857, the U.S. commissioner of patents officially ruled that slave inventions couldn’t be patented.
Slave owners often took credit for their slaves’ inventions. In one well-documented case, a black inventor named Ned invented an effective, innovative cotton scraper. His slave master, Oscar Stewart, attempted to patent the invention. Because Stewart was not the actual inventor, and because the actual inventor was born into slavery, the application was rejected.
Stewart ultimately began selling the cotton scraper without the benefit of patent protection and made a significant amount of money doing so. In his advertisements, he openly touted that the product was “the invention of a Negro slave – thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro. When did a free Negro ever invent anything?”
Reaping benefits of own inventions
The answer to this question is that black people – both free and enslaved – invented many things during that time period.
One such innovator was Henry Boyd, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1802. After purchasing his own freedom in 1826, Boyd invented a corded bed created with wooden rails connected to the headboard and footboard.
The “Boyd Bedstead” was so popular that historian Carter G. Woodson profiled his success in the iconic book “The Mis-education of the Negro,” noting that Boyd’s business ultimately employed 25 white and black employees.
Though Boyd had recently purchased his freedom and should have been allowed a patent for his invention, the racist realities of the time apparently led him to believe that he wouldn’t be able to patent his invention. He ultimately decided to partner with a white craftsman, allowing his partner to apply for and receive a patent for the bed.
Some black inventors achieved financial success but no patent protection, direct or indirect. Benjamin Montgomery, who was born into slavery in 1819, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters in the 1850s. This invention was of particular value because, during that time, steamboats delivered food and other necessities through often-shallow waterways connecting settlements. If the boats got stuck, life-sustaining supplies would be delayed for days or weeks.
Montgomery tried to apply for a patent. The application was rejected due to his status as a slave. Montgomery’s owners tried to take credit for the propeller invention and patent it themselves, but the patent office also rejected their application because they were not the true inventors.
Even without patent protection, Montgomery amassed significant wealth and become one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi after the Civil War ended. Eventually his son, Isaiah, was able to purchase more than 800 acres of land and found the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi after his father’s death.
A legacy of black innovators
The patent system was ostensibly open to free black people. From Thomas Jennings, the first black patent holder, who invented dry cleaning in 1821, to Norbert Rillieux, a free man who invented a revolutionary sugar-refining process in the 1840s, to Elijah McCoy, who obtained 57 patents over his lifetime, those with access to the patent system invented items that still touch the lives of people today.
True to the legacy of American innovation, today’s black inventors are following in the footsteps of those who came before them. Now patent law doesn’t actively exclude them from protecting their inventions – and fully contributing to American progress.
A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.
It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.
But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.
Building a fan base
Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.
Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.
During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.
Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.
Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.
In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”
When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.
By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”
As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
Making enemies at home
Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.
As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.
Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.
The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.
Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.
How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”
Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.
Long before there was Jamal and Latasha, there was Booker and Perlie. The names have changed, but mycolleagues and I traced the use of distinctive black names to the earliest history of the United States.
As scholars of history, demographics and economics, we found that there is nothing new about black names.
Until a few years ago, the story of black names depended almost exclusively on data from the 1960s onward. New data, such as the digitization of census and newly available birth and death records from historical periods, allows us to analyze the history of black names in more detail.
We used federal census records and death certificates from the late 1800s in Illinois, Alabama and North Carolina to see if there were names that were held almost exclusively by blacks and not whites in the past. We found that there were indeed.
We were interested to learn that the black names of the late 1800s and early 1900s are not the same black names that we recognize today.
The historical names that stand out are largely biblical such as Elijah, Isaac, Isaiah, Moses and Abraham, and names that seem to designate empowerment such as Prince, King and Freeman.
These names are quite different from black names today such as Tyrone, Darnell and Kareem, which grew in popularity during the civil rights movement.
Once we knew black names were used long before the civil rights era, we wondered how black names emerged and what they represented. To find out, we turned to the antebellum era – the time before the Civil War – to see if the historical black names existed before the emancipation of slaves.
Since the census didn’t record the names of enslaved Africans, this led to a search of records of names from slave markets and ship manifests.
Using these new data sources, we found that names like Alonzo, Israel, Presley and Titus were popular both before and after emancipation among blacks. We also learned found that roughly 3% of black Americans had black names in the antebellum period – about the same percentage as did in the period after the Civil War.
But what was most striking is the trend over time during enslavement. We found that the share of black Americans with black names increased over the antebellum era while the share of white Americans with these same names declined, from more than 3% at the time of the American Revolution to less than 1% by 1860.
By the eve of the Civil War, the racial naming pattern we found for the late 1800s was an entrenched feature in the U.S.
Why is this important?
Black names tell us something about the development of black culture, and the steps whites were taking to distance themselves from it.
Scholars of African American cultural history, such as Lawrence W. Levine, Herbert Gutman and Ralph Ellison, have long held that the development of African American culture involves both family and social ties among people from various ethnic groups in the African diaspora.
In other words, people from various parts of Africa came together to form black culture as we recognize it today. One way of passing that culture on is through given names, since surnames were stolen during enslavement.
How this culture developed and persisted in a chattel slavery system is a unique historical development. As enslavement continued through the 1800s, African American culture included naming practices that were national in scope by the time of emancipation, and intimately related to the slave trade.
Since none of these black names are of African origin, they are a distinct African American cultural practice which began during enslavement in the U.S.