I hadn’t planned on recognizing Black History Month until a reader recommended some required reading. The fact that she listed children’s authors only made my job easier. I have as much trouble with big words as the next person.

I learned about a number of inventors I’d never heard of, like Lonnie Johnson, who designed that weapon of mass destruction known as the Super Soaker. I had no idea that Frederick McKinley Jones invented the refrigerated truck. As the story pointed out, we wouldn’t have spent summer days waiting for the ice cream truck if it hadn’t been for Jones.

Jones offered some advice to people who want to emulate his success. I’ve already followed one of his steps ” “Read. Find out what others know. Use libraries.”

In fact, the next chapter in my children’s book talked about an African-American who invented a lubricator for locomotives. This may not sound impressive but it did give birth to a common phrase. When a customer bought a lubricator, they’d ask if it was the “real McCoy,” designed by that real genius Elijah McCoy.

Now, I always knew that a black man invented the dreaded traffic signal but I didn’t know his name was Garret Augustus Morgan. He patented it in 1923 and it’s saved a lot of lives since. So, we can thank him when we’re stuck listening to more than one song at Circle and Roosevelt. Morgan also invented a safety hood for firemen but some wouldn’t wear it because a black man designed it.

That’s what’s inspiring about these stories. These pioneers were not only creative geniuses ” they had to overcome prejudice. Moving on to a book about black scientists, I learned Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful heart surgery. He started Provident Hospital right here in Chicago. It was the nation’s first interracial hospital and provided the first training school for black nurses.

O.K., so we all know about George Washington Carver the “peanut man.” But I had never heard of Ernest Just, who discovered the structure of cells and how they work in the human body.

Oak Park has a school named after Percy Julian but I didn’t know why. He came up with cortisone treatment for arthritis, when he wasn’t busy inventing foam to smother fires. Now, I already knew that a black doctor devised the world’s first blood bank. But I had no idea that Charles Richard Drew was also a star athlete at Amherst. Drew came up with the concept of giving plasma. He overcame racist theories in the 1940’s, when even blood was segregated, to prove that someone from one race could safely receive a transfusion from a person of a different race.

I could go on and on: Jane Cooke Wright came up with chemotherapy to treat leukemia; Bertram Fraser-Reid was a pioneer in antibiotics. I couldn’t even write this story without the work of John P. Moon, who invented devices for storing computer data ” like that old faithful the floppy disk.

Some people question the need for Black History Month. But, let’s suppose some African-American kid from the South Side wins a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Wouldn’t that be worth celebrating?

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball...