February is Black History Month, and JEO would like to take this opportunity to celebrate a few of the many influential African American engineers and innovators who have shaped the engineering world.
Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, to enslaved parents from Kentucky who escaped via the Underground Railroad. From a young age, McCoy exhibited an interest in mechanics. This interest led him to Scotland, where at the age of 15, he began an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.
McCoy moved to Michigan to continue his work as an engineer, but racist discrimination made it hard for him to find work. He eventually was hired as a fireman and oiler for Michigan Central Railroad. Through his work at the railroad, McCoy was able to put his engineering background to use. At the time, trains were required to stop to have their axels oiled. McCoy created a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over an engine's moving parts while the train was in motion—allowing trains to continue running and increasing service reliability. It is rumored that many tried to replicate his design, leading people to ask if the product was "the real McCoy."
McCoy's inventions and engineering did not stop there; he obtained over 50 patents on his inventions and went on to found the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920.
Howard P. Grant
Born in 1925 in Houston, Texas, Howard P. Grant was the first African American to graduate from the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1948, he became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineering—their first African American member.
Grant spent years building his professional portfolio and creating relationships in California with city and state officials. Howard's career led him to become the first African American engineer for the City of San Francisco and the county's water department. He continued to pave the way for other African American engineers as one of the leading influencers behind the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers. To this day, this organization introduces engineering to African American youth and educates the public on science and engineering.
Grant's works far exceeded his engineering accomplishments; he was also passionate about helping underprivileged youth, serving as a board member for Big Brothers, Hunter's Point Boy's Club, and the San Francisco Urban League's scholarship committee. UC-Berkeley has called Grant an "engineering icon," and he is remembered as living his life with a passion for serving his community.
Lilia Abron came into the world with a bang. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 8, 1945. She was born prematurely at home and was rushed to the hospital in a cab as white ambulance providers refused to serve African Americans during that time.
At a young age, Abron's intelligence was noticed. By the time she reached high school, she was placed in a program focused on math and science. After changing college career paths from biology and medicine to chemistry at LeMoyne College, an advisor recommended she continue her education in the field of engineering. She received a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and completed her Master’s in Environmental Engineering in just thirteen months. She was one of only two women in the program.
Abron went on to work for the Kansas Department of Water and became a research engineer for the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago. Wanting to further her education, Abron received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1972 from the University of Iowa—the first African American woman in the United States to do this.
Dr. Abron's passion for education and engineering led her to found PEER Consultants in 1978, making her the first African American woman to start an environmental engineering firm. Dr. Abron and PEER focus on water and wastewater engineering, environmental engineering and sciences, field services, and energy and environmental sustainability. Wanting to do more, Abron founded PEER Africa in 1995, which designs and builds energy-efficient homes in South Africa. This program won the American Academy of Engineers 2012 Superior Achievement Award.