Enterprising Minds: Black Innovators from Missouri

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“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” – Madam C.J. Walker

Though their creative contributions to society have largely been overlooked throughout history, Black innovators have made incredible strides in science, agriculture, business, education and society.

A number of Black Missourians are credited with the development of inventive practices and products that continue to make a mark on modern society.

George Washington Carver

Born in 1864 on a farm near Diamond, George Washington Carver was just an infant when he and his mother and sister were kidnapped (his father had died before George was born). Moses Carver, the owner of the farm, hired a neighbor to retrieve the family, but only George was found. Moses and his wife raised the young boy and taught him to read and write.  He enjoyed learning from an early age and became keenly interested in plants.

Carver went on to study botany at the Iowa State Agricultural School, where he earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Agriculture degrees. He quickly received an offer from Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At Tuskegee, Carver established the agricultural curriculum and began his research on improving soil quality by rotating and diversifying crops and incorporating compost.

The key to successful crop rotation was the incorporation of nitrogen-fixing crops, like peanuts. Before long, the new rotation practices resulted in massive amounts of unwanted peanuts. Carver dealt with this challenge by developing different ways to use peanuts and sharing his findings with local farmers. Today, he is best known for developing more than 300 products from peanuts as well as sweet potatoes and soybeans. 

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation to create a monument honoring George Washington Carver. It was the first national monument dedicated to an individual who was not a president. The George Washington Carver National Monument is located in Diamond on the farm where Carver was raised.

Tom Bass

Born into slavery in 1859, Tom Bass was the son of a slave, Cornelia Gray, and William Bass, the son of a plantation owner. The Bass family bred and trained horses, introducing Tom to his lifelong passion for working with horses.

Eventually, Bass moved to Mexico, Missouri, where he began work with Joseph Potts, a prominent horse buyer and the owner of one of the founding stallions of the American Saddlebred breed. From Potts, Bass learned about the horse industry, and he was able to open his own training operation. His skill and gentleness while handling animals captured the attention of people across the country.

Bass became the first Black man to ride in the American Royal Horse Show. His fame grew to such a level that he was invited to participate in the Royal Horse Show in London, England. His performances in a show setting were masterful, but he is best known for his groundbreaking work in training. He created the Bass bit, which was crafted to comfortably protect a horse’s mouth while helping the rider maintain leverage while holding the reins. The bit is still widely used today.

Bass earned a place in the Hall of Famous Missourians in 1999, and his bust can be seen in the Missouri State Capitol.

Ethel Hedgemon and Arizona Cleaver

In the mid-to-late 1800s sororities began to form as a cornerstone of social life on college campuses. However, like college campuses at the time, sororities were racially exclusive and did not allow Black students to join.

Recognizing the need for social groups that cater to Black students, two Missourians set out to level the playing field.

Ethel Hedgemon Lyle was born in St. Louis in 1887. She excelled in school and earned a scholarship to Howard University, a well-respected historically Black college in Washington, D.C. During her time in college, she maintained her excellent academic standards while also participating in music and theater groups. In 1908 she, along with eight classmates, founded Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Greek-letter sorority for Black women. It was established to create a space where members could feel supported, uplifted and encouraged. Alpha Kappa Alpha was incorporated in 1913 and quickly expanded to other campuses.

Twelve years later, another Missouri native – Arizona Cleaver from Hannibal – also made an impact on Howard University. Cleaver was friends with Charles Robert Samuel Taylor, a member of the fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, and from this friendship stemmed the idea to create a sister organization to Taylor’s fraternity. Cleaver and four friends began the process to form their own organization to foster a sense of community and encourage scholastic achievement. In January, 1920, they officially met for the first time as Zeta Phi Beta. Cleaver served as the sorority’s first president.

Madam C.J. Walker

Before she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove was born to enslaved parents in 1867 in Louisiana. Following the death of her husband when she was just 20 years old, she moved with her young daughter to St. Louis. It was there that she met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who inspired her to go by Madam C.J. Walker. It’s under this name that she would become the first female self-made millionaire in America.

After experiencing a scalp condition that led to significant hair loss, Walker formulated a variety of hair products made for the specific needs of Black women. She recommended women follow the “Walker system” because her products were made by herself with her clients’ health in mind.

Walker’s business continued to grow, and she moved the headquarters to Indianapolis. She was passionate about hiring Black women to work for the company, and at one point she employed more than 3,000 people. Her philanthropic work extended beyond generous donations to the NAACP and charities that supported the Black community – she also rewarded employees who donated and volunteered by giving them bonuses.

A permanent exhibit at The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis focuses on the life and success of Madam C.J. Walker and includes many products from her haircare line and a life-size wax figure of the businesswoman herself.