Tech's History Includes Unheralded Black Pioneers

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Margot Lee Shetterly covered one of the many stories waiting to be told. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is critical to recognize the scores of women and men of color who advanced computing. They deserve to be recognized, but perhaps more importantly, without them we do not have an accurate picture of the computing’s history. Clear acknowledgment of Black computer pioneers could help to dispel incorrect and harmful ideas held by people both inside and outside the industry.

The prevailing narrative now about African Americans’ place in tech is “pathologizing,” says Dr. Anna Everett, Professor of Film, Television, and New Media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Dominant media institutions insist on perpetrating an image of black people as poster children for the digital divide’s pathologizing rhetoric,” she wrote in 2007.

In fact, there is much evidence of “African American early adoption of and involvement with prior innovative media technologies,” she states. Leading experts such as Dr. Alondra Nelson (Dean of Social Science, Columbia University) and Dr. Ron Eglash (Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), among others, have eloquently explained how African American technophilia has been systematically ignored or denied in the media and popular culture.

Indeed, Jane Margolis, Senior Researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, reported in 2008 that such popular perceptions are reinforced by teachers and passed along to students. For a long time, historians of computing have recognized the need to look at race and technology, but research remains scarce. In 2010, American Studies scholar Carolyn de la Peña noted that “historians of technology stand at a moment when a vast discrepancy exists between what we would like to be doing and what we are accomplishing.”

History can play an important role in the drive to establish inclusiveness at all levels of computer education, research, and industry. But disregard of accomplished scientists, engineers, and professionals distorts the conversation on race and computing. Discussions by even those with the best of intentions all too often focus on the economic and educational deficits faced by segments of the African American community. Silence in respect to achievements promotes discussions emphasizing need – while omitting talent, aptitude, and potential. This affects the ability to establish appropriate methods and outcomes, including benefits to society as a whole.

A more complete record of Black computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in corporate, government, and military positions would go a long way toward refuting incorrect and harmful presumptions. One reason for the lack of scholarship is the absence of materials in archives, the conventional source for historians. The invisibility of persons of color in archives should not be seen as proof that they didn’t exist, but instead that collecting institutions did not seek out or accept materials that acknowledged them.

The ongoing absence of records threatens to sustain the fallacy that people of color didn’t and don’t make scientific advancements. In order to correct this, archives and libraries dedicated to preserving the history of computing must identify and collect materials proactively. Professional and academic disciplines are not immune from prevailing cultural preconceptions and hold their own preconceived notions, which have helped perpetuate the omission of people of color. Historians must challenge themselves to look at sources outside of the archives they are accustomed to searching. This must include engagement with publications by the very communities that historians report wanting to study. Books and magazines by, about, and for African Americans, Latinos/as, and Native Americans may not be specifically dedicated to computing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have things to say about it. Ebony magazine published at least 57 profiles of professionals engaged with computers and computing between 1959 and 1996 in the column “Speaking of People,” as well as feature articles.

If computing as a field has had little to say about persons of color, it may be better to examine what communities of color have had to say about computing. The lack of acknowledgment of African Americans continues to reinforce damaging misperceptions. Young people who see computing portrayed as a historically white institution may think it never was or will be a place for them. Cultural critic Mark Dery reminds us that “the stories we tell ourselves, as a culture, help shape our reality.”

This vicious cycle makes it all the more important to highlight the achievements of pioneering African American women and men. In recent years Margot Lee Shetterly (Hidden Figures) and Duchess Harris (Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA) each authored important contributions to our historical understanding. Many more stories remain untold. We need history to help reveal them.

 

About the Author: R. Arvid Nelsen is the author of “Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine” in the Jan-Mar 2017 issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Between 2007 and 2016 he served as curator and archivist for the Charles Babbage Institute for the History of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota. He now serves as a librarian at Southern Methodist University.

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