African American Museum of Iowa exhibit celebrates black inventors

by LP Green, II

A laser to treat cataracts. One of the first gas masks. Refrigerated trucks that make it possible to transport fresh food over great distance.

These are just a few of the inventions and innovations celebrated in a new exhibit, “Products of a Creative Mind” on display at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.

The exhibit, which will remain up through July 30, 2016, looks at the lives and contributions of black inventors in America.

“People think about the things that impact their lives, but not about the people who invented them, and all the challenges they faced, especially African-American, to get the recognition and get these things patented,” says museum educator Krystal Gladden.

Some of the names in the exhibit are well known, such as George Washington Carver, famous for his work with peanuts.

Carver, whose mother was a slave, studied botany at Iowa State Agricultural College, now called Iowa State University, and was the first black graduate of the university. He went on to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he researched ways for poor Southern farmers, most of them black, to improve their lives. He is known for development of new uses for crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans and pecans.

He traveled the region in his “Jesup wagon,” teaching the new crop techniques he’d developed. A replica of that wagon is part of the exhibit, along with a microscope where visitors can view botany slides.

Having hands on activities in the exhibit was important, Gladden says. At the back of the exhibit is a “Creationarium,” with drawing paper, colored pencils, Legos, connector sets and other tools, where visitors of all ages can dream up inventions of their own.

“We wanted people to talk about the process of creating things and to think about the problem in their own lives they can innovate around,” Gladden says. “You don’t have to hold a patent to be an inventor.”

The back of the exhibit also holds a computerized database of African-American patent holders for patrons to search. There were far more inventors than they could include in the exhibit, Wright says, but they didn’t want to leave them out.

For many of the patent holders, there is little information available beyond a name and what they created. Their personal stories have been lost to time.

And there are countless inventors whose names were never recorded alongside their inventions at all. Before the Civil War, slaves were not allowed to hold patents, and slave masters were not allowed to patent things on behalf of their slaves.

Even after the war, things weren’t easy for black inventors. Garrett Morgan, the man who in 1914 developed an early gas mask that would be a blueprint for masks worn during World War I, had to resort to hiring a white man to sell his invention before he could get it to be taken seriously.

Curator Brianna Wright says she wanted the exhibit to reflect the intersection of science and culture found in stories such as Morgan’s.

Last year’s temporary exhibit was on music; the year before that was West African culture.

Exploring science is a new direction for the museum, but one that seemed timely with the current focus on “STEM” and “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineer, Arts and Math).

The museum is working on partnerships for related programming with the Iowa Innovation Learning Center, formerly the Cedar Rapids Science Center, along with school groups and others.

“Often we have a limited scope on who the big inventors are,” Gladden says. “We want people to be really thinking about the variety and diversity of people who have contributed to their everyday lives.”

Just seeing an inventor who looks like them can be especially powerful for children of color, she says.

“It is great seeing someone who has the same back story of your grandmother or great grandmother and to say, I could achieve anything,” she says. “You kind of walk with a little more pride. It pushes away limitations. No matter who, no matter what, no matter where, all things are possible.”

By Alison Gowans from The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

(c)2015 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

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