The history of Black History Month

Black History Month in the UK is held in October every year to celebrate the achievements of Black people throughout history up until the present day.

It is an opportunity to not only make progress in eradicating inequality in society today but to also make more people knowledgeable about the history and the black community.

Black History Month started in the US as black history week in 1926, founded by Carter G Woodson and then expanded to Black History Month in 1970. It was held in mainly educational establishments with a high proportion of African-American students. It wasn’t until 1976, when the president of the US, Gerald Ford, acknowledged this month and urged the people of the country to ‘honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout history’.

In the United Kingdom, Black History Month was first celebrated in October 1987 and was arranged by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. Like Carter Woodson, he wanted to challenge racism and celebrate the history of black people. October was chosen because it’s usually a time when African leaders gather to talk about important issues, and it’s also the start of the school year.

BAME in Engineering

In 2022, Wales introduced changes to its curriculum which meant mandatory lessons about black history, racism and contributions of figures from black, Asian and other ethnic minorities (BAME).

BAME in engineering refers to the representation and experiences of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic individuals in the engineering field. It is important to highlight and address the challenges faced by BAME individuals in this industry and work towards creating a more inclusive and diverse environment. Additionally, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of past and present role models can inspire future generations and promote diversity in STEM.

It is estimated that around 9% of engineers in the UK are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. This means that there are approximately 100,000 black engineers in the UK.

Black History Month is a crucial time to honour the legacy of those who came before and to spark nationwide conversations about the future of young Black Britons.

Here are some ways to celebrate Black History Month:

  • Learn about Black history and culture. Read books and articles, watch documentaries, and visit museums and cultural centres that focus on Black history
  • Support Black-owned businesses and organisations
  • Attend Black History Month events in your community
  • Have conversations with your family and friends about Black history and culture
  • Get involved in efforts to promote racial justice and equity

To find out more about Black History Month and participate in its celebrations and educational resources, you can in the following ways:

  • Check with local schools, colleges, and universities. They may have special events, lectures, and resources related to Black History Month.
  • Visit your local library or museum. Many libraries and museums organize exhibits, lectures, and events in honour of Black History Month.
  • Keep an eye on local event listings and community calendars. Many cities and towns host events, performances, and discussions to celebrate Black History Month.
  • Follow the social media accounts of organizations, individuals, and groups that actively promote Black History Month. They often share historical facts, stories, and events.
  • Explore literature and movies related to Black history and culture. Libraries and streaming platforms may curate lists of relevant books and films for Black History Month.
  • Join or attend panel discussions, seminars, and workshops about Black history and contemporary issues. These events often occur during Black History Month and provide valuable insights.
  • Consider supporting Black-owned businesses during this month and beyond. Many businesses may run special promotions or events to celebrate Black History Month.

Black History Month is a time for everyone to learn and grow. It is a time to celebrate the diversity and richness of Black culture, and to work towards a more just and equitable future for all.

Past and present engineers

Throughout history there have been countless famous engineers and role models to inspire the next generation of black engineers. Below are some past and present engineers to inspire you this Black History Month.

Mae Jemison 1956

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel in space in 1992 aboard the Endeveaour Mission STS47. In high school, Mae had an early interest in biomedical engineering.

At the age of 16 years old, she went to Stanford University where she pursued a bachelor of science in chemical engineering and a bachelor’s of arts in African and African-American studies. She completed her PhD in medicine from Cornell University.

In 1988, she was accepted at NASA where she gained experience as a mission specialist.

Later, she became an astronaut office representative at Space Kennedy Centre, where she carried out inspection of software for space shuttles and monitored these to ensure a safe launching process. After NASA, Jemison worked at Dartmouth College and founded the Jemison group to inspire the younger generation about science and technology.

“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life you want to live.”

Donna August 1958

She was the first black woman to earn a doctoral degree from Carnegie-Mellon University. She obtained a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.

Early in her career, she joined Xerox where she gained knowledge and experience in commercial artificial intelligence. In the early 1988s, she joined Apple as a software engineer, and received multiple patents for her work on Apple Newton Personal Digital Assistant, which led to the creation of the iPhone and iPad. In 1996, she founded Freshwater software inc. to help companies improve the performance of computers and sold it in 2000.

Yvonne Clark 1929-2019

Yvonne was the first woman to earn a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Howard University and a master’s degree in engineering management from Vanderbilt University. Yvonne was also the first woman to join the faculty team at the College of Engineering and Technology at Tennessee State University. She taught mechanical engineering for 55 years, and became chair of the department twice.

After graduating, she joined the Frankford Arsenal Gauge Labs and then moved to The Electronic Tube Division of RCA, focusing on the design of electrical equipment. Her career later took her to NASA where she did research on V boosters’ engines for hot spots and designed containers for moon samples to return to Earth. She also later investigated on refrigerants.

Yvonne has received several awards including Distinguished Engineering Educator Award by the Society of Women’s Engineering for which she served on its committee, the Women of Technology Award for Educational Leadership by US Black Engineers, Distinguished Service Award by the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers, President’s Distinguished University Award from TSU.

“Prepare yourself. Do your work…Don’t be afraid to ask questions and benefit by meeting with other women. Whatever you like, learn about it and pursue it…The environment is what you make it. Sometimes the environment is hostile, but don’t worry about it. Be aware of it so you aren’t blind-sided.”

Hattie T. Scott Peterson 1913-1993

Hattie Peterson was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 1954, and the first black woman in the US to earn a bachelor’s of science in civil engineering from Howard University in 1946. Prior to joining USACE, she worked as a survey and cartographic engineer for the US Geological Survey.

At USACE, she worked in the Hydrology Team of The Sacramento Engineering Department, where she focused on flood design reductions. Following her death in 1993, she left an endowment funds at Howard University to help future black civil engineers.

Today, the Sacramento District of the USACE grants every year the Hattie Peterson Inspiration Award recognizing employees that show the highest qualities of personal and professional perseverance when facing social challenges.

Mary Jackson 1921-2005

Mary Jackson was the first black female engineer to join NASA in 1958. She completed her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science from the Hampton Institute in 1942. She worked as a research mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as part of the West Computing Department in Virginia, a state that was under segregation-black and white people had to use different cafeterias and bathrooms.

As she was exhausted from these inequalities, she took the courage to tell one of her supervisors Kazimierz Czarnecki, who then offered her to work with him in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel and became her mentor in 1953. There, she gained invaluable experience such as the effects of wind speed on aircraft. He was impressed by her talent and her ways of learning.

Her mentor encouraged her to join an engineering training program at The University of Virginia for which she had to request special permission as black people were not allowed. After successfully finishing the course, she joined NASA (former NACA) as an aerospace engineer, where she authored several papers on airflow around aircraft. Throughout her time at NASA, she worked in different departments and reached a senior engineer position level. She kept wanting to progress in her career, but she soon realized that as a black woman, it was not possible. However, she had always enjoyed helping and advising other black female scientists and engineers on how to progress in their careers.

In 1979, she decided to get demoted from the engineering department and took on a management role for the women’s program at NASA, where she got to help other black women.

Dr. Nike Folayan

Dr. Nike Folayan is an accomplished, chartered electronics engineer with a Ph.D. in electronics engineering, and is a Fellow at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Currently, she serves as the Technical Director and Technical Discipline Leader for Communications and Control at WSP. In addition to her technical role, Dr. Folayan is an influential technical blogger specializing in SMART technology systems. Folayan is the Chair and Co-Founder of AFBE-UK, a remarkable not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing educational and engineering achievements, especially within the Black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. She also serves as a Trustee at Engineering UK and Stemette Futures.

In recognition of her outstanding efforts to promote diversity in engineering, Dr. Folayan was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her services in the Queen’s New Year Honours List in 2020. Her dedication to the field was further acknowledged when she received an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) from the University of Kent and an honorary Doctor of Technology (DSc) from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Roni Savage

Roni Savage is the CEO and Founder of Jomas Associates, a leading engineering firm in the construction industry since 2009. In 2022, she was recognized as the Most Influential Woman in Construction. Roni boasts an impressive array of professional accolades, including being an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a Chartered Geologist, and a SiLC (Specialist in Land Condition).

Her educational background includes a BEng (Hons) in Engineering Geology and Geotechnics from the University of Portsmouth, as well as a Master’s degree in Environmental Management from the University of Exeter, which she completed with distinction.

Throughout her career, Roni has played a pivotal role in numerous significant construction projects, such as the expansion of the A406 and M25, as well as various buildings and structures across the United Kingdom. Notably, she has been instrumental in devising sustainable remediation solutions that enable the reclamation of several brownfield sites, preventing them from languishing in dereliction.

She is an advocate for diversity and inclusion and a sought-after international speaker, sharing her insights on diversity in business, engineering, and construction.

Eneni Abban

Eneni Abban is a remarkable figure in the world of technology and engineering. She wears multiple hats, excelling in various roles. Not only is she a Robotics Engineer but also a STEM Communicator, an accomplished speaker with multiple awards to her name, and the founder of the internationally renowned Anime and Gaming community, Anime and Chill.

In recognition of her outstanding contributions to the tech industry, she was honoured as the WES Prize winner at the IET’s Young Women Engineer of the year awards in 2022. Her expertise and dedication led to a fully funded membership offer from the prestigious BCS, Chartered Institute for IT. Her impact on the engineering world was also celebrated at The Institute of Engineering and Technology’s “Celebrating impact” exhibition, hosted at their flagship location, Savoy Place.

Eneni is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in technology and proudly identifies as a geek. Her mission is to dispel negative stereotypes and break through the societal expectations that often hinder women from pursuing and thriving in tech careers. Through her platform, “The Techover,” she openly shares her tech journey, aiming to empower and inspire other women to follow their passions in any field. On platforms like YouTube, she goes by the alias “The Techover,” offering insights into her experiences as a black woman in STEM and providing valuable tech tutorials and learning resources in the realms of data and robotics.

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon is a British mathematician, educator, and advocate for women and minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. She is best known for her work in promoting STEM education and careers, particularly for women and underrepresented groups.

Anne-Marie Imafidon displayed remarkable mathematical aptitude from a young age. She passed two GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in mathematics and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) at the age of 11 and became one of the youngest students to pass A-level mathematics at age 13.

She is the co-founder of “Stemettes,” an organization focused on inspiring and supporting young women to pursue careers in STEM. Stemettes offers events, workshops, and mentoring programs to help girls and young women explore and excel in STEM fields. She is a vocal advocate for gender equality and diversity in STEM and frequently speaks at conferences, schools, and other events to promote these causes. Her work has been instrumental in raising awareness about the importance of gender and racial diversity in STEM fields and in providing support and opportunities for young women interested in pursuing careers in science and technology.

Conclusion

Black History month runs from the 1st to the 31st of October every year, use this month as an opportunity to educate yourself about the history, achievements, and challenges faced by the Black community. Share what you learn with others to promote awareness and understanding. Remember that Black History Month is not only about the past but also a time to reflect on the present and consider how to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of society. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black individuals and to continue the work towards a more just and inclusive world.

This is a guest blog, written by Melissa Ahmed CEng and Océane Mba, which contains the views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the IoD.

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