6 changemakers you need to know about for Black History Month

Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, and Maya Angelou are among the notables frequently mentioned in conversations related to Black History Month — and with good reason.

But what do we know about other black changemakers; the many people who are not mentioned in the history books – orators and journalists, astrophysicists and meteorologists, music therapists and composers?


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In honor of Black History Month, we asked three Arizona State University professors to discuss some of the unsung champions in their fields. Here, Vernon Morris, Melita Belgrave and Olga Davis talk about the men and women who continue to inspire their research and teachings.

June Bacon-Bercey: Predicting the future of meteorology

International weather and aviation expert June Bacon-Bercey was the first African-American woman to graduate in meteorology in the United States and the first female television meteorologist trained in meteorology in the United States.

Vernon Morris, director and professor in ASU’s School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, says Bacon-Bercey is one of the pioneers in climate and environmental science who inspired and influenced his career as an atmospheric scientist.

June Bacon Bercey

June Bacon-Bercey

Bacon-Bercey worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an organization for which Morris himself later served as a senior research scientist and founding director of the NOAA Cooperative Science Center in Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology. She also worked for the National Weather Service and the Atomic Energy Commission, at a time when men greatly outweighed women in scientific fields.

Morris says Bacon-Bercey was always thinking about helping the next generation of climate scientists, even using the money she won on a 1977 TV quiz to create a scholarship for women. She has also published an analysis of African-American meteorologists in the United States with the aim of increasing the participation of African-American women in meteorology, and she has used her platform to encourage women to be persistent and resilient In the field.

Bacon-Bercey co-founded the American Meteorological Society’s Council on Women and Minorities. In 2000, she was recognized by the National Science Foundation and NASA as a Minority Pioneer for her achievements in atmospheric science.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1928, Bacon-Bercey died in 2019 in Burlingame, California. She was 90 years old.

George Carruthers: Broadening the Scope

George Carruthers, physicist, engineer and space scientist, is another scientific innovator says Morris opened his mind and eyes to a career in science.

George Carruthers, center, principal investigator of the Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera

George Carruthers (center) principal investigator of the Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera. Photo courtesy of NASA

In 1969, Carruthers invented and patented the image converter to detect electromagnetic radiation in short wavelengths. His innovative telescope was used on Apollo 16, the NASA mission that landed the first moon-based space telescope. Listen

Born in Cincinnati in 1939, Carruthers is said to have built his first telescope at age 10 using cardboard tubes and lenses he bought through the mail with money he earned from making deliveries. He received his doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1964 and began working at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) the same year.

Although his research and innovations were highly regarded and frequently recognized, Morris says Carruthers moved away from the spotlight. Yet he was vigilant in helping the next generation of scientists and engineers achieve their goals, creating curriculum pathways for high school students to work at the NRL and teaching courses in earth and earth sciences. space at Howard University after retiring from the NRL.

Morris says he is also a direct beneficiary of Carruthers’ generosity and legacy, crediting Carruthers for helping him start his own research lab. at the beginning of his career.

Carruthers died in Washington, DC, in 2020 at the age of 81.

Deforia Lane: science and sound healing

Melita Belgrave, Associate Dean and Associate Professor in the School of Music, Dance and Drama, says Deforia Lane has been an inspiration and model for her research and practice in the field of music therapy. Lane has been recognized for designing a number of music therapy programs for adults and children facing a wide range of emotional, mental, physical and terminal challenges.

Book Deforia Lane

Her work was so successful that she was the first music therapist in the country to receive a scholarship to study music therapies. effects on cancer patients.

Belgrave says that although Lane has managed to break through as an important contributor to the science and practice of music therapy, there are a number of other black women who have been largely overlooked or forgotten for their contributions to the field and whose works are also worthy of recognition.

Belgrave says representation matters on many levels and recalls how Lane inspired her as a young student. She says it has been an honor and a privilege to be able to interact with Lane as a professional and peer for the past few years.

Belgrave recommends Lane’s book “Music As Medicine: Deforia Lane’s Life of Music, Healing and Faith” for those interested in learning more about Lane’s life and career as a music therapist.

James Weldon Johnson: Poets and Hymns

 - Raise every voice and sing

James Weldon Johnson

The ASU Choirs’ cover of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” inspired Belgrave to revisit the story of the song and its composer, James Weldon Johnson.

The song, widely considered the black national anthem, was originally written by Johnson as a poem for educator Booker T. Washington for Washington’s visit to a school in Jacksonville, Florida in 1900. Shortly after , Johnson enlisted his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. , to set the poem to music, and several years later the NAACP began promoting the anthem as the black national anthem.

Belgrave says the resurgence of interest in the song in recent years has resulted in new interpretations, some of which include storytelling and conversation about why the song is important and what it means to people.

James Weldon Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 67.

Maria W. Stewart: Persuasive Communication

It was in 1832. The place: Franklin Hall in Boston. The Event: A landmark speech and call to action to resist slavery by one of the first women of any race to speak publicly to a mixed audience of men and women in the United States — Maria W. Stewart.

Olga Davis, associate dean of Barrett, The Honors College on the downtown Phoenix campus and professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, says her exploration of Stewart’s seldom-told impact began in graduate school. when she wrote a thesis on narratives of enslaved black women and the liberating personality of these narratives. Davis said she was moved by Stewart’s courageous act of speaking out at a time when women were discouraged from speaking in public, sometimes with death threats.

Over the next three years, Stewart gave a total of four public speeches and published a political pamphlet and a collection of meditations before bowing to public pressure from those who wanted her to stop lecturing. Stewart then moved to New York, where she taught in public schools, and then to Washington, D.C., where she continued to teach and write before her death in 1879.

Davis says Stewart’s essays and speeches presented ideas that became central to struggles for freedom, human rights and women’s rights, and laid the groundwork for future generations of activists and political opinion leaders. Listen

Ida B. Wells: Journalism and Justice

Ida B Wells

Social justice activist Ida B. Wells is not an unknown figure in the annals of American history, but the renewed attention and interest in the investigative journalist and activist’s legacy in recent years is a reminder why do historians according to the New York Timesconsidered Wells “the most famous black woman in America” ​​during her lifetime.

Davis says Wells was a fighter in many different areas — for racial justice, for women’s suffrage. Her perseverance as a writer, speaker and organizer is well documented and continues to inspire to this day.

Wells became less well-known in the decades following her death in 1931, but she has returned to prominence in recent years as the subject of various news articles, editorials, exhibits and podcasts.

In 2018, the city of Chicago, where Wells lived and died, renamed a street for her, and in January 2022, toymaker Mattel released a limited-edition Barbie doll celebrating Wells as part of its ” Inspiring Women”. The doll is accessorized with a “Memphis Free Speech” newspaper – the newspaper Wells co-owned and wrote for, before a white mob invaded and destroyed the newspaper’s offices in 1892.

In 2020, Wells was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for her work in journalism. Davis says the honor reinforces Wells’ impact decades after his death.

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