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From the SDOT Archives | Black innovators who have shaped transportation.

Black Lives Matter mural in Seattle. Photo Credit: Howard Wu.

Every time you stop on red, enjoy clear views of the Olympics or buy a pint of ice cream, you have an inventor to thank. As part of our series to honor Black History Month, we’ve gone back into the SDOT archives to re-highlight some of the Black individuals who helped transform transportation with their inventions, research, and perseverance. 

Despite the many accomplishments of Black people throughout history, many achievements are still marked by or coupled with racism. We acknowledge that there is still work to be done. We recognize that the individuals highlighted below followed – and were followed by – many others who took risks, overcame significant adversity, faced sometimes deadly consequences, and were not always given fair credit or compensation for their work. Some still aren’t fairly compensated, but that’s for another blog on the wage gap. 

Maya Angelou 

Photo Credit: A&E Television Networks

Streetcars are synonymous with San Francisco and same goes for Maya Angelou and writing. But did you know that the two have more in common? She was the city’s first Black female streetcar conductor, at just 16. She described her experience working for the Market Street Railway in her book, Mom & Me & Mom, saying she got the job after her mother encouraged her to keep going back until they let her apply. When asked why she wanted to work for the streetcar, Angelou replied “I like the uniforms. I like the people.” 

Seattle’s streetcars may not be as iconic as San Francisco’s, but they are an integral part of our public transportation network. Over the past year, the First Hill Streetcar has been a vital transportation service line for those working in healthcare throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This streetcar serves neighborhoods around several medical providers, including Swedish Hospital’s First Hill campus and the Virginia Mason Seattle Medical Center. Next time you board a streetcar, think, “this conductor might just be the next Maya Angelou.”  

Learn more below: 

Garrett Morgan 

Photo Credit:  A&E Television Network.

In 1923 Garrett Morgan patented his three-position traffic signal, significantly increasing safety at intersections. His design included a T-shaped pole with three settings that could be lit at night (like the blinking yellow light we use today), warning drivers to proceed carefully. Before Morgan’s invention, traffic signals were manually operated and only switched between Stop and Go without warning, leaving drivers no time to react to the change and contributing to collisions. His automated system with a “warning” position is the ancestor of our modern-day yellow light. 

We are constantly working to make traffic signals work better for everyone. Our newest pedestrian-first traffic signal policy update – which we talked about in a recent blog – will:  

Putting the safety of people walking and rolling first is especially important in our work to be a more equitable city as Black people are more likely to be victims of traffic violence, and people walking and rolling are our most vulnerable travelers. Our safety updates/precautions would not have been possible without Garrett Morgan’s invention. 

Meredith Gourdine 

Photo Credit: Gaius Chamberlain.

The world would be a much smoggier place without the catalytic converter, invented by Meredith Gourdine in 1967. His exhaust purification system helps reduce harmful emissions and pollution from vehicles. A Cornell graduate who founded his own research lab, he’s recognized as a pioneer in energy conversion. Gourdine was also an Olympic Silver Medalist, winning in the broad jump at the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland! 

This commitment to environmental safety and sustainability is even more important and widespread today. Through our transportation investments, we are working to make Seattle a city of the future where taking transit, riding a bike or scooter, or walking and rolling are safe and efficient options to get around. This is even more important as BIPOC communities bear the most significant burden of climate change, regionally and nationwide.  

(Please be aware that – regionally and nationwide – theft of catalytic converters is on the rise significantly.) 

Frederick McKinley Jones 

Photo Credit:  A&E Television Networks.

Self-taught in mechanical and electrical engineering, Frederick McKinley Jones received more than 60 patents in his lifetime, including one used for refrigerated trucks. In the 1930s he designed a portable air conditioning unit for trucks carrying perishable food, that went on to be used extensively in WWII to also preserve blood, medicine, and troop supplies. Jones also founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company. His technology now allows frozen foods (and ice cream!) to be shipped nationwide. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, and was the first African American to receive the award. 

As a port city, products and goods move into, out of, and around Seattle every single day. Imagine if we didn’t have the ability to keep food cold in transit. Our freight and maritime community supports tens of thousands of jobs along the Duwamish River and across Harbor Island, as well as the critical supply chain to Alaska, Hawaii, and across the globe.  

Over the next few weeks, we will share ways that SDOT is working to dismantle institutional racism.   

  • Money: We’re supporting BIPOC-owned businesses to develop portfolio, gain access to opportunities, and build wealth using the inclusive strategies in SDOT’s implementation of the City’s Women and Minority Owned Business Enterprise (WMBE) program. 
  • Policy: The Racial Equity Toolkit lays out a process and a set of questions to guide the development, implementation and evaluation of policies, initiatives, programs, and budget issues to address the impacts on racial equity.  
  • Community: Supporting true, genuine, and authentic community engagement with BIPOC-led communities and centering the work of the Transportation Equity Workgroup. 

Check back for the next few Fridays to read our latest Black History Month blog, but know that our communication facing BIPOC communities continues. 

In the meantime: