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Black History Month: Transportation Pioneers

February 21, 2024 10:00 AM
By: Nicole Tyler, Director of Equitible Transportation

​Black History Month is a time to reflect on the remarkable achievements and legacies of Black Americans and at PennDOT, we are honored to pay tribute to those who have made tremendous impacts on transportation. These trailblazers have reshaped industries, broken barriers, and inspired generations. Let's take a moment to honor the accomplishments of Caroline Rebecca Le Count, Garrett Morgan, Bessie Coleman, Frederick McKinley Jones, Lois Cooper, Elijah McCoy, and the groundbreaking efforts of Safe Bus Company Incorporated.

Caroline Rebecca Le Count (c. 1846 – January 24, 1923; often written as LeCount) was an African-American educator and civil rights figure from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is often compared to activist Rosa Parks for her early efforts to desegregate public transportation. LeCount was part of the Ladies' Union Association, a group of women supporting the Union in the American Civil War. As part of their efforts, she and other Black women would ride streetcars to deliver supplies to troops even though Black riders were often removed by force. She and others would board, be forcefully removed, and then appeal to the courts and the public to ban discrimination on streetcars. LeCount, along with her fiancé Octavius Catto and abolitionist William Still, also made petitions and lobbying efforts towards desegregation. One historian noted that "Caroline Le Count did almost the same thing as Rosa Parks did, but her streetcar in 1867 was powered by a horse."

When the city passed a law in 1867 banning segregation on public transport, LeCount successfully brought charges against a driver that wouldn't let her ride. The city then issued an official notice to its transit companies that they were no longer allowed to discriminate against Black passengers.

Garrett Morgan: Revolutionizing Safety and Innovation

Garrett Morgan, a prolific inventor, and entrepreneur made groundbreaking contributions to transportation safety. His invention of the three-position traffic signal, patented in 1923, revolutionized road safety and became a cornerstone of modern traffic management systems. Morgan's inventive spirit also extended to other significant innovations, including the gas mask, which protected workers from harmful gases during tunnel construction, thereby saving countless lives.

Bessie Coleman: Soaring to New Heights

Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1921, defying racial and gender barriers to pursue her passion for aviation. Despite facing discrimination and adversity, Coleman's determination and perseverance propelled her to become a renowned aviator and an inspiration to aspiring pilots worldwide. Through her achievements, she paved the way for future generations of black aviators and left an indelible mark on the history of flight.

Frederick McKinley Jones: Innovating Cold Chain Logistics

Frederick McKinley Jones, an ingenious inventor and entrepreneur, revolutionized the transportation of perishable goods with his invention of the portable refrigeration unit for trucks. His groundbreaking innovation, patented in 1940, transformed the food industry by enabling the safe and efficient transportation of fresh produce over long distances. Jones' contributions not only improved food safety and distribution but also laid the foundation for modern cold chain logistics systems.

Lois Cooper: Driving Social Change Through Transportation

Lois Cooper made history as the first Black female transportation engineer at the California Department of Transportation. Her exceptional skills in mathematics earned her the reputation of being the go-to expert for complex calculations among her colleagues. Cooper's meticulous approach left a lasting impact on numerous projects, including several named freeways in Southern California. Throughout her life, she remained dedicated to advocating for math and engineering education. Lois Cooper's legacy continues to inspire generations of engineers with her determination and expertise.

Elijah McCoy: Engineering Excellence and Innovation

Elijah McCoy, an accomplished engineer, and inventor revolutionized the transportation industry with his numerous inventions and innovations. McCoy's most notable contribution was the development of the automatic lubrication system for steam engines, patented in 1872. His invention revolutionized locomotive technology by significantly reducing friction and maintenance requirements, leading to safer and more efficient rail transportation. McCoy's ingenuity and engineering excellence solidified his legacy as one of America's most prolific inventors.

The Safe Bus Company: Empower Journeys

The Safe Bus Company, founded in 1926, was a pioneering example of African American entrepreneurship and activism in transportation. It provided safe and reliable transportation for black communities during a time of widespread racial segregation in public transit. By operating its buses and routes, the company challenged discriminatory practices and empowered African Americans to assert their rights to equal treatment. Although details of its operations are limited, Safe Bus Company's legacy remains a symbol of resistance against segregation and a testament to the resilience of black entrepreneurs and activists in the face of systemic racism.

This Black History Month, it's vital to amplify the stories of these trailblazers. Their resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance have shaped the transportation landscape, inspiring a more inclusive future. Let's honor their legacies and ensure their impact continues to uplift us for generations to come.

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