A Black History Month Round-Up for Nerds

If the algorithm were benevolent, it would post those friends of ours who enrich the world with delightful, lesser-known but amazing stories from black history. If the algorithm favored wonks and nerds who love learning something new, Black History Month would be a blast because some of the most amazing stories were negotiated out of the history curriculum to placate parents with enough influence and money to throw around like weights. (James Loewen documented this in Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book that homeschooling curriculums like Sonlight assign among other primary texts in contrast with the “safe” textbooks of many classrooms.)

If you too love to learn something new, this column aspires to entertain and delight you. In the style of early elementary quizzes, you get a bank of names. Below are four paragraphs and your challenge is to try to match the biography paragraph with the correct person from the bank of four names. Try first without Googling answers.

Here are the names: Kizzmekia Corbett, Pauli Murray, Lonnie Johnson, Vibia Perpetua.

One: A forerunner to the Civil Rights Movement, this black American took a seat next to a friend in the whites only section of a bus in 1940, years before Rosa Parks took a similar act of courage. She enrolled in law classes at Howard University in 1941, where she befriended Bayard Rustin, one of the architects of the Civil Rights movement. Because she was female, Howard denied her the right to pursue her PhD, even as she questioned whether she was “one of nature’s experiments; a girl who should have been a boy” and repeatedly sought medical testing to understand her discomfort with her gender. She went on to be the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School and coined the term “Jane Crow” to explain how the combination of racism and sexism affected black women. Then in 1977, she moved from her legal vocation into ministry. She was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church because she had found deep meaning in their Christian faith, which supported her through the death of her partner and through her own death from cancer in 1985.

Two: Born in Carthage, Tunisia, this woman’s account of being arrested, tried and imprisoned along with four others for their religious identity is one of the oldest known documents written by a woman. Before her public torture and death on March 7, 203 CE, she handed off her journal to a fellow Christian who completed the narrative. Her journal recounts her prison dreams, which she believed were prophetic, as well as the story of Felicity who was pregnant and allowed to carry her child to term, nurse the baby boy and then had to hand the infant to family to face her death. The account was read publicly on their death day in Carthage for centuries. It demonstrates early control of voice and persona in narrative writing.

Three: Invention is an amazing process. Consider this. This rocket scientist (literally) was working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and tinkering off hours, trying to develop a home heat pump that could use water in place in FREON. While using a lathe and mill machine to create custom nozzles for his pump, he found one that shot a powerful stream of water out of his bathroom sink. Bazinga! He had an idea for a high-pressure water gun. So he designed the Super Soaker and gave a prototype to his 7-year-old daughter to test. Naturally soaker far outpowered her friends’ dinky water pistols. When he rejoined the Air Force, he took a prototype of the soaker to a picnic, shot water at a friend and turned the event into a huge water fight. Later he invented the Nerf Gun. Currently, he’s working on an all-ceramic battery that holds three times as much charge as a lithium-ion battery. It is more stable and can be used in harsh environments, which will improve clean energy options.

Four: In 2019, this scientist published new research on the structure of known coronaviruses, showing how the viruses’ crown-shaped spikes (corona is taken from this) were what latch on to healthy cells in the body and make them sick. The research also revealed what parts of these viruses triggered the immune system to fight back. Along with her team at the National Institutes of Health, she developed a “plug-and-play” process that prepares a modified sequence to be used with Messenger RNA to trigger an immune reaction to that specific coronavirus. Little did she and other scientists know that in December a novel coronavirus, the infamous COVID-19, would become a leading killer of humans from 2020 until her vaccine technology was used to mitigate the pandemic. As soon as scientists shared the genetic makeup of the new COVID-19 virus on Jan. 10, 2020, her lab at the National Institutes of Health went to work. By Jan. 14, they had the sequence to begin producing the vaccine. Testing of the vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna and other companies could begin as early as March, which would have been impossible without her groundbreaking pre-COVID-19 research. By November, data proved her technology was part of the effective vaccine campaign against COVID-19, saving millions of lives.

Check the end of the column to find out who each person was, but in the meantime, another dozen excellent candidates were suggested by friends in the know, who when polled offered up some equally worthy people: William Wells Brown, contemporary of Frederick Douglass; Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, whose autobiography advanced abolition in the U.S; sci-fi/speculative fiction greats N.K Jemison and Octavia Butler; Robert Smalls, who commandeered the Confederate CSS Planter and turned it over to the Union; Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower; scientist and writer Ayana Elizabeth Johnson; Mae Jemison, astronaut; Lloyd Austin Jr, first black Secretary of Defense; the abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; and finally, Sylvia Robinson, mother of hip-hop.

Check those worthy people out, if you are so included.

FYI: The answers in order of paragraphs are: Pauli Murray, Verbia Perpetua, Lonnie Johnson and Kizzmekia Corbet.

Clarification from last week’s column on mental health systems. We blended the ACT team with the mobile crisis team in Frederick, MD, but they are separate. The mobile crisis team does not have specialized individuals. The mobile crisis team only has a licensed clinician, EMT and police. The other ACT team doesn’t have the EMT and police officer but does have the others.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.