5 min read

Black History—Moving Forward With Every Story

By Cathey Law on 2/26/21 9:38 AM

This year Black History Month was especially significant for me. The 2020 social justice events—particularly those relating to Black Lives Matters--motivated so many of us to listen more closely to the personal stories of colleagues, friends and neighbors from diverse backgrounds. It opened the eyes of many people and made diversity, equity and inclusion personal.

So, as February comes to a close, I want to share how my colleagues and I celebrated Black History Month. Of course, because of the pandemic, this year we approached things a bit differently, but the end result was the same—recognizing and saluting the many contributions that African Americans have made to our country. 

My co-workers, from all backgrounds, celebrated Black culture, discussed present-day challenges like identity, workplace inequalities and healthcare disparities and shared the rich stories of our African-American history. We created these experiences using:

  • Art from a series of virtual African-American museum tours, 
  • Film with our weekly African-American Cinema series, 
  • Food by sharing recipes, and 
  • Individual achievements through a weekly series profiling African Americans who have made significant contributions to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM.)

The entire month was full of sharing and meaningful moments, but the most memorable ones for me were the stories of African Americans who made major contributions to STEM. So many substantial STEM milestones made by African Americans are unrecognized, so it is important to remember the stories of these STEM pioneers. They are worth repeating, so I would like to share a few of them. 

The notable Black leaders in STEM included:

  • Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 19, 1806) was a free African-American almanac author, surveyor, landowner, and farmer. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African-American woman and a former slave, Banneker had little or no formal education and was largely self-taught. He became known for assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in a survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States. His knowledge of astronomy and mathematics helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs.
  • Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895), was the first African-American woman to become a doctor of medicine in the United States. Crumpler graduated from medical college at a time when very few African Americans were allowed to attend medical college or publish books. Crumpler became one of the first female physician authors in the nineteenth century, and in 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses. The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society at Syracuse University and the Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, were named after her. Her Joy Street house is a stop on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.
  • Dr. Mae Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first Black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. A graduate from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African-American studies, Jemison earned her medical degree from Cornell University. Prior to joining NASA, Jemison was a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone for two years, then returned to the United States where she worked as a general practitioner. After leaving NASA, Jemison founded Jemison Group, Inc., a technology research company that developed a satellite-based telecommunications system to improve healthcare delivery in developing nations. 
  • Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was an African-American mathematician and physicist whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist." Johnson’s story achieved national recognition in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
  • Dr. Percy Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was an African-American research chemist who received more than 130 chemical patents. A pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, Julian was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry's production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. Julian was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry, the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inductee from any field. 
  • Dr. James E. West is an American inventor and acoustician. He holds over 250 foreign and U.S. patents for the production and design of microphones and techniques for creating polymer foil electrets, an inexpensive, compact device that is now used in 90-percent of all microphones, including those found in telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors, and hearing aids.

We celebrated the achievements of these Black STEM leaders, but it’s important to note that Black workers are still very under-represented in STEM fields. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, jobs in STEM have grown by 79%—outpacing overall job growth. However, “Black and Hispanic workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Blacks make up 11% of the U.S. workforce overall but represent 9% of STEM workers. And among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, blacks are just 7% of the STEM workforce.”

Clearly, we have a lot of work ahead of us, but as we conclude Black History Month, I am proud of the support that Signify Health gave us to learn about Black history and create cultural experiences with our colleagues from all backgrounds. We are on this inclusion journey together. And, as a team, we must keep the conversation going and remind one another that we make significant progress with every story we share.

Cathey Law, Diversity & Inclusion Program Director & Human Resources Business Partner, Signify Health