The Transportation Industry's Most Influential African Americans
Black History Month is celebrated each February to recognize the achievements of African Americans, and their roles in U.S. history. In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating some of the most innovative and influential African Americans who made a lasting impact on the transportation industry.
Frederick McKinley Jones, the chief engineer and co-founder of Thermo King and one of the most prolific inventors in history, patented the mechanical transport refrigeration unit. Before Jones’ landmark invention, the only way to keep foods cold during transport was by using blocks of ice. Thanks to his ingenuity, the automatic refrigeration system made it possible for long haul trucks and railroad cars to transport fresh and frozen foods around the world. Jones was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, becoming the first black inventor to ever receive the honor. During his life, he was granted 61 patents, 40 of which were for refrigeration equipment.
Garrett Morgan invented a traffic control device that many of us use every single day, and perhaps, take for granted – the three-position traffic signal, also known as the stoplight. After witnessing a particularly bad accident, Morgan was inspired to design an automated signal with an interim “warning” position – similar to today’s “yellow light." This wasn’t the first traffic signal introduced to drivers; however, it was the first to have the middle “warning” position that gave drivers enough time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered, preventing accidents. Morgan patented his invention in 1923 and eventually sold the rights to General Electric.
Lois Cooper made history by becoming the first female African American transportation engineer to be hired in the Engineering Department at the Division of Highways, now known as California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), in 1953. She was also the first African American woman in California to pass the Professional Engineers (PE) License Exam. Starting out as an engineering aide, Cooper worked her way up to eventually become a transportation engineer and project manager. During her career, she was a part of several major projects including the I-105 Century Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Long Beach Freeway, the San Gabriel River Freeway, and the Riverside Freeway. She was also the first female director of the First Diamond Lane, the predecessor to carpool lanes. In addition to her career achievements, Cooper participated in the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers, visiting students and advocating for math and science in schools.
Without the contributions of forward-thinking, innovative individuals such as Jones, Morgan, Cooper, and many others, we would not have the dynamic, cutting-edge transportation industry that we have today. Paving the way for generations to come, we proudly remember their achievements and celebrate their impact on American history and the field of transportation.
Images courtesy of Star Tribune, Caltrans District 7, and Biography.com.