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  • Black History is American History – February 14

    February 14, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Rev. Dr. Katie G. Canon (1950)

    For the next few days I will be featuring women preachers and musicians. This comes from a personal place and in preparation for my own preaching on this coming Sunday. Yes, there are women preachers, and yes there are women of color who are preachers/academics. When it comes to representation this is important and not just in regard to representation. If we are true to biblical teachings, Old and New Testament, we realize that women held places of leadership in biblical history.

    Dr. Katie G. Cannon was born in 1950 and was reared in Kannapolis, North Carolina. She experienced the Jim Crow oppression of the South, where racial segregation was the order of the day.

    Cannon’s teaching career took her first to the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She then taught at Temple University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Cannon is currently the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

    Cannon is credited with a long list of firsts and many academic and scholarly achievements. In 1974 she was the first African American woman to be ordained into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church of the USA. In 1983 she became the first African American woman to earn a doctor of philosophy degree (in Christian ethics) from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Barber Scotia College in North Carolina and a master of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta Georgia.

    Cannon’s most notable contribution is her development of a theological perspective known as womanist theology or womanism. Womanism seeks to critique traditional feminism pointing out the ways that the dual struggles of being black and female and being black, female, and poor in America have not been addressed by feminist thinkers, most of whom have reflected on feminist issues from the position of white privilege. Womanist scholars seek to reflect upon issues of oppression while using the experience of black women as the point of departure.

    Womanism seeks to offer a perspective from which the interrelated issues of oppression based upon race, gender, and class can be viewed. It also wonders how so much of earlier Protestant theology managed not to make these connections any sooner. Thus womanist theology offers a sharp critique of racism within the ranks of feminism and an equally sharp critique of sexism within the black church, black theology, and the civil rights movement.

    This information and full entry can be found in the book, An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage by Marvin A. McMickle.

    For further reading:

    Katie Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community.

    Jacqueline Grant, “Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Experience as a Source for Doing Theology with Special Reference to Christology,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 13 (spring 1986)

    C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience.


  • Black History is American History – February 13

    February 13, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 -1999)

    Marie Van Brittan Brown was the inventor of the first home security system. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit TV.  Brown was born in Queens, New York, on October 22, 1922, and resided there until her death on February 2, 1999, at age seventy-six. Her father was born in Massachusetts and her mother was from Pennsylvania.

    The patent for the invention was filed in 1966, and it later influenced modern home security systems that we still use today. Brown’s invention was inspired by the security risk that her home faced in the neighborhood where she lived. Marie Brown worked as a nurse and her husband, Albert Brown, worked as an electronics technician. Their work hours were not the standard 9-5, and the crime rate in their Queens, New York City neighborhood was very high. Even when the police were contacted in the event of an emergency, the response time tended to be slow. As a result, Brown looked for ways to increase her level of personal security. She needed to create a system that would allow her to know who was at her home and contact relevant authorities as quickly as possible.

    Brown’s security system was the basis for the two-way communication and surveillance features of modern security. Her original invention was comprised of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. The final element was an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police immediately.

    Three peepholes were placed on the front door at different height levels. The top one was for tall persons, the bottom one was for children, and the middle one was for anyone of average height. At the opposite side of the door a camera was attached with the ability to slide up and down to allow the person to see through each peephole. The camera picked up images that would reflect on the monitor via a wireless system. The monitor could be placed in any part of the house to allow you to see who was at the door.

    There was also a voice component to enable Brown to speak to the person outside. If the person was perceived to be an intruder, the police would be notified with the push of a button. If the person was a welcome or expected visitor, the door could be unlocked via remote control.

    Marie and Albert Brown filed for a patent on August 1, 1966, under the title, “Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance.” Their application was approved on December 2, 1969. Brown’s invention gained her well-deserved recognition, including an award from the National Scientists Committee and an interview with the New York Times on December 6, 1969.

    Brown’s invention laid the foundation for later security systems that make use of its features such as video monitoring, remote-controlled door locks, push-button alarm triggers, instant messaging to security providers and police, as well as two-way voice communication. Her invention is still used by small businesses, small offices, single-family homes, and multi-unit dwellings such as apartments and condos. The Browns’ patent was later referenced by thirteen other inventors including some as recently as 2013.

    Brown was the mother of two children, one of whom, Norma Brown, went on to become a nurse and inventor.

    Sources and more:

    Raymond B. Webster, African American firsts in science & technology, (1999); The Inventor of the Home Security System: Marie Van Brittan Brown by Think Protection; Patent: US 3482037 A; “Brown Interview with the New York Times,” New York Times, December 6, 1969. Contributor: Hill, Rebecca

  • Black History is American History – February 12

    February 12, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Norbert Rilliuex (1806 – 1894)

    Norbert Rillieux was born on March 17, 1806 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Norbert was born a free man, although his mother, Constance Vivant, had once been enslaved. His father, Vincent Rillieux was a wealthy White engineer and inventor involved in the cotton industry. As a child Norbert was educated in the Catholic school system in New Orleans but his father recognized his talent and sent Norbert to Paris, France for advanced schooling. He studied at the L’Ecole Centrale, the top engineering school in the country and at age 24 became an instructor of applied mechanics at the school, the youngest person to achieve this position. He published a series of papers related to “the Functions and Economic Implications of the Steam Engine.” Eventually, in 1834, Rillieux returned home to his father’s plantation which was now also being used to process and refine sugar.

    Sugarcane had become the dominant crop within Louisiana, but the sugar refining process employed at that time was extremely dangerous and very inefficient. Known as the “Jamaica Train”, the process called for sugarcane to be boiled in huge open kettles and then strained to allow the juice to be separated from the cane. The juice was then evaporated by boiling it at extreme temperatures, resulting in granules being left over in the form of sugar. The danger stemmed from the fact that workers were forced to transport the boiling juice from one kettle to another, chancing the possibility of suffering severe burns. It was also a very costly process considering the large amount of fuel needed to heat the various kettles.

    During the 1830s, France witnessed the introduction of the steam-operated single pan vacuum. The vacuum pan was enclosed in an area with the air removed (this was necessary because liquids can boil at a lower temperature in the absence of air than with air present, thus costing less). Rillieux decided to improve greatly on this efficiency by including a second and later a third pan, with each getting heated by its predecessor.

    In 1833, Rillieux was approached by a New Orleans sugar manufacturer named Edmund Forstall. Because numerous sugar producers had received complaints about product quality, Forstall persuaded Norbert to become the Chief Engineer of the Louisiana Sugar Refinery. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Norbert took the job, an intense feud developed between Forstall and Norbert’s father, Vincent Rillieux. Out of loyalty to his father, Norbert left his position with the company. A few years later, Norbert was hired by Theodore Packwood to improve his Myrtle Grove Plantation refinery. In doing so he employed his triple evaporation pan system which he patented in 1843. It was an enormous success and revolutionized the sugar refining industry improving efficiency, quality and safety.

    Rillieux reached the pinnacle of his success between 1845 and 1855, when his invention revolutionized the entire sugar manufacturing process. During that period, Rillieux’s evaporator replaced the process that had been in use for centuries. Rillieux also developed additional improvements and engineering accessories for sugar refining that have long been considered essential components of sugar processing. While he was experiencing his years of greatest professional success, as person of mixed race, Rillieux was subjected to increasing racial intolerance. Restrictions that limited the movements of free persons of color throughout the southern United States were broadened at that time, so Rillieux returned to France.

    In the 1850s, New Orleans was suffering from an outbreak of Yellow Fever, caused by disease-carrying mosquitos. Rillieux devised an elaborate plan for eliminating the outbreak by draining the swamplands surrounding the city and improving the existing sewer system, thus removing the breeding ground for the insects and therefore the ability for them to pass on the disease. Unfortunately, Edmund Forstall, Norbert’s former employer was a member of the state legislature and spoke out against the plan. Forstall was able to turn sentiment against Rillieux and the plan was rejected. Norbert Rillieux, disgusted with the racism prevalent in the south, as well as the frustration of local politics, he eventually left New Orleans and moved back to France (ironically, after a number of years in which time the Yellow Fever continued to devastate New Orleans, the state legislature was forced to implement an almost identical plan introduced by white engineers).

    After returning to France, Rillieux spent much of his time creating new inventions and defending his patents as well as traveling abroad. Rillieux died on October 8, 1894. Techniques developed by Rillieux are now commonly used in the reduction or concentration of saturated liquids into super-saturated liquids, high density solids, or dry granules. Rillieux’s invention has been adapted for the production of any number of solids and reduced liquids whose products are sensitive to heat. The manufacture of such commodities as condensed milk, soaps, gelatins and glues, the recovery of waste liquids in distilleries and paper-making factories, and the processing and production of petrochemicals all have used Rillieux’s basic invention, or devices that are based on his process.

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  • Black History is American History – February 11

    February 12, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924 – 2017)

    Jewel Plumber Cobb, a cell biologist and cancer researcher, was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 17, 1924 to Frank V. Plummer, a physician, and Carrabelle (Cole) Plummer, a schoolteacher. Her grandfather, who had been freed from slavery, became a pharmacist, initiating four generations of medical practitioners. An only child, Jewel Plummer began reading her father’s scientific journals to supplement her science training while in junior high school.  Plummer was a high school honor student where she focused on biology.

    Although Cobb began her college career at the University of Michigan in 1942, she left in her sophomore year because of the institution’s practice of requiring all African American students to reside in one house on campus. She completed her B.A. in biology at Talladega College, Alabama in 1947.

    Cobb then decided to attend graduate school and applied for a fellowship but was initially rejected by New York University (NYU) because of her race. However, she decided to visit the campus where she impressed the biology faculty who granted her the fellowship. Plummer earned an M.S. at NYU in 1947 and Ph.D. in 1950 in cell physiology with a dissertation titled, “Mechanisms of Pigment Formation.” In 1949 while still in graduate school Cobb was named an independent investigator for the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She then held prestigious postdoctoral fellowships at the Cancer Research Foundation of Harlem Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the National Cancer Institute.

    Although her interest in biology could have led her to become a medical doctor, Cobb was not interested in working directly with the sick. She was, nonetheless, interested in the theory of disease, an interest that later led her to become one of the leading cancer researchers in the United States. Cobb is the recipient of several honorary doctorates and many awards, including the Kilby Award for lifetime achievement in 1995.

    Jewel Cobb’s research focused on skin cancer and in particular the ability of melanin to protect skin from damage. Her most significant research has been with testing new chemotherapeutic drugs in cancer cells, the impact of which continues. She also examined how hormones, ultraviolet light, and chemotherapeutic drugs could cause changes in cell division. Much of that work was done while she was on the faculty at the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1954, where she directed the Tissue Culture Laboratory, as well as at New York University from1956 to 1960, and Sarah Lawrence College between 1960 and 1969.

    In 1969, Cobb took the first of several administrative posts. She served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Connecticut College between 1969 and 1976, where she was also a professor of zoology. From 1976 to 1981 she was a professor of biological sciences and Dean of Douglass College, a women’s college at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

    In 1981 Jewel Plumber Cobb became President of California State University, Fullerton. While at Cal State Fullerton, she led a successful effort to obtain funding for the campus’s new science and engineering building and the new computer science building. She also initiated medical and pre-dental programs for minorities and women in the sciences.

    In 1990 Cobb relinquished the Presidency and became a California State University Los Angeles Trustee Professor. In that capacity she worked with impoverished youth through Southern California Science and Engineering ACCESS Center and Network, and the Science Technology Engineering Program (STEP) between 1991 and 2001. She also led California State University’s ASCEND projects promoting careers in science, math, and engineering. The National Academy of Sciences gave Cobb its 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award for her work promoting the sciences as a career field for youth of color.

    A supporter of equal access to educational and professional opportunity, Cobb has written often about racial and sexual discrimination in the sciences, and has raised funds to allow more minorities to enter into the field. Since her retirement, Cobb, was named President and Professor of Biological Science, Emerita at California State University at Fullerton and Trustee Professor at California State University at Los Angeles. In 2004 she returned to the East Coast. Cobb had been living in Maplewood, New Jersey, when she passed away on January 1, 2017.

    More at:

    Jewel Plummer Cobb, “Filters for Women in Science,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 323, 1979

    “Jewel Plummer Cobb,” in Who’s Who Among African Americans (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2003)