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Janie Hermann, Princeton Public Library’s adult programming manager, said in discourses about inventors and notable inventions, the conversation always centers people like Thomas Edison.
“But we usually don’t include other groups of people that are also important,” she said.
So, as part of its celebration of Black History Month, the library is featuring a special exhibit about notable African American inventors and innovators.
“We tend to think of the big names in invention and innovation, and it really is a diverse set of people who have moved this country forward,” Hermann said.
James Howard, the executive director of the online Black Inventors Hall of Fame, designed the exhibit. He said many brilliant Black innovators who are worthy of notice in American history have been ignored.
“What the world needs to know plain and simply is that we as a people are much larger than just sports and entertainment,” Howard said.
“From technology to aviation to zoology to agriculture, household products, you name it, the Black innovator-inventor has imputed immensely into the success and growth of this nation as one of the leading nations in the world,” he added.
The exhibit, which will run through the end of this month, features 64 Black innovators, brought to life with vivid images and brief one-minute narrations. Included in the group is Thomas Jennings, a freed slave who obtained a patent for inventing dry cleaning in 1821. Also featured is Granville T. Woods, who is considered one of the most prolific of all Black innovators.
“Not only did he help to transform the telecommunication industries, but he also helped to transform the transportation industry,” said Howard.
Woods, who held more than 50 patents, concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars.
Hermann said children who come to the library will also have the opportunity to read books about Black inventors.
“We’re trying to do a program that is also going to draw in families and kids, and hopefully let them know that anybody can be an inventor,” she said.
She said reaction to the exhibit has been very positive.
“Every year we try to find a little bit of something different to uplift, instead of just re-telling the same stories that everybody knows,” she said.
Howard, who is a designer and historian and taught at the County College of Morris for 25 years, will visit the Princeton Library on Sunday to help celebrate National Inventors Day.
He said construction will begin this summer in West Orange, New Jersey, on a new museum honoring the pioneering genius of African American inventors over the past 400 years. An anonymous donor pledged $13 million toward the project. The museum has also received some state funding.
“When we talk about our country you are talking about the Black invention experience,” he said, “I often tell people who don’t know, that Black folk did not invent everything, but you darn well better believe that we had our hands in most things.”
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