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Leaders and Innovators

African-Americans have played a significant role in fighting for and securing access to and equity in education and have led the way on a number of innovations that have improved living and working conditions for all Americans. In this section we highlight just a few of these leaders and innovators.

The Heroes Club

If you are an elementary school teacher looking to liven up your lessons on American history, check out The Heroes Club™, a set of 25 trading cards that depict American heroes and the virtues they represent, including:

Worksheets and lesson plans, both of which prompt students to think about the challenges a particular hero faced and why our lives are better today because of that person, are also posted at the Heroes Club™ Web site.

African-American Innovators

  • Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) invented an oil-dripping cup for trains. Other inventors tried to copy McCoy's oil-dripping cup, but none of the other cups worked as well as his, so customers started asking for "the real McCoy." The expression is still used today when people want the best or the "genuine article."
  • Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) invented an important part of the light bulb—the carbon filament. Latimer worked in the laboratories of both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
  • Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-1889) invented a shoemaking machine that increased shoemaking speed by 900 percent.
  • Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) known to many as the "Black Edison," invented the telegraphony, which was later purchased by Alexander Graham Bell, and the multiplex telegraph, a train-to-station communication system.
  • Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) invented a hair-growing lotion and had a lucrative business selling beauty products. She became the first self-made female millionaire.
  • Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) was a prolific inventor. His most successful inventions included a hair-straightening lotion, the gas mask, and the first traffic signal.