African American Trailblazers in U.S. History

28 February 2023

Today marks the end of Black History Month in the United States. Black History Month is an annual observance paying tribute to the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

Founded by Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month began as “Negro History Week”. February was chosen to signify the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who both played prominent roles in shaping black history. Negro History Week received an overwhelmingly positive response across the country. Black history clubs increased, demand from teachers for educational materials grew, and other ethnicitiesendorsed and supported their efforts. In the 1960s, Negro History Week turned into the month-long celebration that we know today, as more people became aware of the history and culture of African-Americans. Although celebrated in the month of February, at SmartestEnergy we celebrate the contributions of African American innovators year-round. In honor of their gracious accomplishments, we are highlighting a few African American energy pioneers who paved the way for the energy industry today.

David Crosthwait was a mechanical and electrical engineer who devoted his life to redefining the technology of indoor temperature control. Growing up as an African-American in Kansas City, Missouri, during the Jim Crow era, becoming a renowned scientist was almost impossible. However, Crosthwait managed to do just that. In the 1920s he invented and improved heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. His innovative ideas paved the way for him to create design systems for high-profile projects, including Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center in New York City. During his career, Crosthwait received 35 U.S. patents and 80 foreign patents. In 1971, Crosthwait was the first African-American to be made a fellow of the American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Annie Easley was one of the first African Americans at NASA formerly known as NACA. In 1955, when technology was not as advanced as it is today, Easley began her career as a “human computer” doing computations for researchers at NACA. Easley was one of four African Americans out of 2500 employees. As technology evolved, and computers became more frequently used, Easley shifted her career to become a Computer Technician. In 1977 Easley decided to expand her education and earned her Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Cleveland State University. Generally, NASA would pay for work-related employee education; however Easley was always turned down for financial aid. After receiving her degree, the personnel department decided that to be considered a professional Easley needed more specialized courses. Thus, leading her to take additional training. Easley was no stranger to being faced with adversities within her career. When photos of her and her coworkers were enlarged for display, Easley’s face was cut out of the picture. Following the energy crisis of the late 1970s, Easley worked on a project examining damage to the ozone layer. She developed and implemented computer programs for determining alternative power technology and for solving problems of energy monitoring and conversion. Easley is also known for her work on  battery technology used for early electric vehicles. Later in her career, Easley took on the role of an equal employment opportunity counselor at NASA, supervising issues of race, gender, and age discrimination within the company.

Dr. Sossina M. Haile is a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Applied Physics at Northwestern University. Dr. Haile is known for her research in sustainable energy materials. Descending from Ethiopia, Dr. Haile migrated to the United States in 1976. In 1992 she earned her PHD in Materials Science and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her Ph.D., Dr.Haile became an assistant professor at the University of Washington. In 1996 she transitioned to the California Institute of Technology. There her research group investigated ionic conduction in solid materials with applications to batteries and fuel cells. By developing a way to convert electricity into hydrogen, store it and convert it back to electricity when more is needed, Dr. Haile and her team made a breakthrough on rebalancing the U.S. energy grid and helping combat the energy crisis.