African-American Inventors and Trailblazers
Students learn about 10 African Americans whose innovations directly impacted culture and society.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
Through this lesson, students learn about 10 African Americans whose innovations directly impacted transportation, health care, fashion, and even students' own lunches! Using the guided research activities along with the discussion questions and teaching ideas below, help your students understand how these inventors' achievements were significant because of both what they created and the barriers they often had to overcome.
- Gain insight into African-American history from slavery to the civil rights movement
- Learn about individual people who shaped history by reading their biographies and researching the age in which they lived
- Understand the causes and effects of the civil rights movement in America
- Study the history of jazz music to gain awareness of the cultural contributions made by different groups in America
- Build nonfiction literacy skills as they read Web-based articles for details and use a timeline to obtain information
- Apply critical thinking skills to answer questions regarding controversial events related to the civil rights movement
- Hone writing skills through brief essay submissions or grade-appropriate research papers
- Develop and present an oral report that includes important research points and historical facts
- Black History in America Activities
- Top Ten African American Inventors
- Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet
Set Up and Prepare
- Before reading about the individual inventors, set up a timeline of American history.
- Mark the center of your timeline with dates from 1840 to today, but leave some space at the beginning and end of the timeline for additional dates.
- Be sure all students can see the timeline (outline it on a chalk board, project it on a screen, etc.).
Have students share some "big" facts they know about history in the years between 1840 and today. Help them fill in important dates such as the Civil War, World War II, or the Great Depression. Students can use their textbooks or check the Books and Resources list for sources that will help them find exact dates.
Ask students to consider what life was like for African Americans during each of the periods you've marked on the timeline. Focus on the time before/after/during major events. Some things for the students to consider:
- How much education did most black children have?
- Where did they live?
- What types of jobs did they have?
- What were some differences between how a typical African American might have lived and how a middle class white person might have lived?
Ask students to consider similarities among black Americans, whites, and other ethnic or demographic groups. Probe them to consider limitations of technology or science during the various periods in history.
Teach with the Activities
1. Meet Notable Inventors
Go through The Top Ten African-American Inventors with students. Read the facts and explore each of the "Find Out More" links.
On the timeline, mark when each inventor lived:
- Elijah McCoy 1843-1929
- Lewis Latimer 1848-1928
- Jan Ernst Matzeliger 1852-1889
- Granville T. Woods 1856-1910
- George Washington Carver 1860-1943
- Madam C. J. Walker 1867-1919
- Garrett Morgan 1887-1963
- Otis Boykin 1920-1982
- Dr. Patricia E. Bath 1949-
- Lonnie G. Johnson 1949-
Discuss how these inventors might have felt to be pioneers. Have students write a journal entry answering one of the following questions:
- Do you think it was hard for some of these inventors to prove themselves and their inventions because of their skin color?
- Why do you think that some of these inventors are not well known today?
- What obstacles did these inventors face?
- How might the inventors and the things they created been influenced by the times in which they lived?
2. How Would You Feel?
Have students imagine themselves in the shoes of the inventors. Tell them, "Think about being in a situation where you are the first person to break into a job where no one else like you has ever worked. Imagine how hard you would have to work to prove yourself." Have students write and submit their ideas.
3. Research Historic Figures
Using the Books and Resources list, have students research a notable African American not featured in The Top Ten African-American Inventors activity (they may choose another inventor, a musician, politician, athlete, or other historic figure).
As they do their independent research, students should take notes. When they've completed their research, students will use their notes to create a profile of their person like the ones featured in the inventor activity.
Have students present their profiles to the class. Presenters should be prepared to answer questions from fellow students.
Invite each student to add their person to the class timeline.
4. Explore the Traits of a Trailblazer
Hand out the Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet. Students should complete the sheet using information they gather in their research.
Using their research notes and Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet, have students write a brief paragraph about why the person they've researched is a trailblazer. Work with each student to revise the paragraph and share it with the class.
Supporting All Learners
4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks
Grades K-4 History
- Understands how people over the last 200 years have continued to struggle to bring liberty and equality, as promised in the basic principles of American deomcracy, to all groups in American society.
- Understands the accomplishments of ordinary people in historical situations and how each struggled for individual rights or for the common good
- Understands historical figures who believed in the fundamental democratic values and the significance of these people both in their historical context and today
Read about the history of jazz. Add the musicians to your timeline and discuss how they were trailblazers like the inventors you've just researched. Have students consider these questions:
- How might the inventors and the musicians have had similar experiences?
- What differences were there between the inventors and the musicians?
- What barriers or prejudices do you think jazz musicians faced?
- Besides science and music, what other areas do you know African Americans have been trailblazers?
- What traits seem to be important to be a trailblazer, inventor, or great musician?
- Do you think these traits are related to race or skin color?
- What would you have done if you were an African American during the 1700s? during the Civil War? In the early 20th century? During the civil rights movement?