Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged education

Illustration of five people, backs to the viewer, arms around each other, looking at a cityscape with with USB cords plugged into buildings and wifi/Internet symbols
Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.

Welcome to the digital era. Now what?

In the fall of 2020, for the first time, an entire generation started school on a screen. As the new coronavirus abruptly cut many of us off from the world outside our homes, for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy digital communication tools, the Internet has become one of the most essential tools for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. As sci-fi and scary as this may seem, there is also an opportunity here to transform—again—the Internet.

As COVID-19 continues to dramatically upend our lives, an ever-evolving digital world pushes us to rethink the purpose of the Internet and challenges us to re-create our digital and political lives as well as the Internet itself. The challenge is ensuring that all people will have the skills, knowledge and power to transform the Internet and shift its dependence on a commerce- and clickbait-driven economic model to become instead a universally guaranteed utility that serves people’s needs and allows creativity to flourish.

Societal Reflection


This challenge has been a long time coming. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Internet was on questionable ground. In early 2020, misinformation campaigns, privacy breaches, scams, and trolls proliferated online. When COVID-19 hit and the world was forced to shift the important tasks of daily life online, we saw (again) how digital inequalities persist—forcing poor and vulnerable communities to rely on low-speed connections and cheaper devices that can’t handle newer applications.

The Internet is a reflection of who we are as a society. We know that there are people who scam and bullies who perpetuate injustice. But there is also beauty, creativity, and brilliance. The more perspectives there are shaping this digital era, the more potential we have to tap the best parts of us and the world.

There is no silver bullet that will keep violence or small-mindedness at bay—online or off—but I know from 13 years of working on digital justice in Detroit that teaching technology is the first step toward decolonizing and democratizing it.

A City’s Story


Over the years, Detroit has faced many economic hardships, which has meant that digital access has too often taken a back seat. Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community 2.0, compiled data from the 2013 American Community Survey and found that Detroit ranked second for worst Internet connectivity in the United States.

Following that report, in 2017 the Quello Center of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University reported that 33% of Detroit households lacked an Internet connection, fixed or mobile. Yet the world had already moved online.

By 2011, many government agencies had transitioned away from physical spaces, making social services only accessible via the Internet. My colleagues and I at Allied Media Projects (a nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, collaborative world) understood that access to and control of media and technology would be necessary to ensure a more just future. As Detroiters, we needed to figure out how to create Internet access in a city that was flat broke and digitally redlined by commercial Internet providers. We also needed to address the fact that many Detroiters who had never before used digital systems had a steep learning curve ahead of them.

The question we asked our communities, and answered collectively, originated from and addressed Detroit’s unique reality: What can the role of media and technology be in restoring neighborhoods and creating new economies based on mutual aid?

Three people in full color on one side of a large cellphone use phones and tablets; one person on the other side in black-and-white with an Internet "loading" symbol
Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.

To answer this question, the concept and practice of community technology—a method of teaching and learning technology with the goals of building relationships and restoring neighborhoods—emerged. If we want to harness the potential of the digital future ahead of us, we need to reshape our current relationships with the digital world. We need to understand how it works, demand our rights within it, and be aware of how digital tools shape our relationships with each other and with the larger world. Ultimately, the goal of community technology is to remake the landscape of technological development and shift the power of technology from companies to communities. The place where this begins is by rethinking our digital literacy and tech education models.

Community technology is inspired by the citizenship schools of the Civil Rights movement. Founded by Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark on Johns Island, South Carolina, in the 1950s, citizenship schools taught adults how to read so that they could pass voter-registration literacy tests. But under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, the schools actually taught participatory democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politics, and strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle.

I saw a through line from the issues that encouraged citizenship schools to emerge in the 1950s to the struggles that Detroit faced in the early 2000s. In the 21st century, communities with high-speed Internet access and high levels of digital literacy enjoyed a competitive advantage. The denial of these resources to low-income and communities of color compounded the existing inequality and further undermined social and economic welfare in those neighborhoods.

Like the citizenship schools, community technology embraces popular education, a movement-building model that creates spaces for communities to come together in order to analyze problems, collectively imagine solutions, and build the skills and knowledge required to implement visions. This educational model structures lessons around the goal of immediately solving the problem at hand. In the citizenship schools, lessons were planned around the goal of reading the U.S. Constitution. Along the way, participants developed the profound technical and social skills needed to solve the problem.

In 2008, when I first started teaching elders in Detroit how to use and understand the Internet, it was always hard to know where to start. There were so many things to do online. The first question I asked was: “What do you wish you could do with the Internet?” Oftentimes, folks wanted to be able to view images of their grandchildren that had been sent to their email, or they would want to communicate with loved ones across the seas. It would be nearly impossible for me to teach a class that attended to all of those individual needs while keeping everyone engaged.

I wondered: If I taught problem-solving rather than teaching technology, could I support the same elder who couldn’t view a digital photo of their grandchild to build and install Wi-Fi antennas and run an Internet service provider (ISP) in their neighborhood?

As impossible as that may sound, it worked. In 20 weeks, I saw former Luddites work with their neighbors to build wireless networks. This curriculum went on to shape the Equitable Internet Initiative, which has trained over 350 Digital Stewards throughout Detroit, New York, and Tennessee.

Man with dog waves to woman on bike; both have social post-like "speech bubbles" containing text
Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.

Digital Liberation


Over the eight years I ran the Digital Stewards Program, what I realized is that relevance can engage someone to learn, but curiosity is what cultivates the kind of lifelong learning that leads to liberation.

Citizenship schools remind me that liberation is not a product of having learned a skill but rather the continued ability to participate in and shape the world to meet your and your communities’ needs. Becoming a lifelong learner of technology—and aspiring constantly to use it for liberatory ends—is essential because technology is constantly changing.

Every software program I ever learned in college is now obsolete. To meaningfully participate in the digital era, we need to be able to adapt technology to meet our needs rather than change ourselves to adapt to new technologies.


In order to cultivate the agency and self-determination necessary to rescue this digital era from corporations and trolls, we will need to change how we as a society pass on knowledge and how—and for whom—we cultivate leadership and innovation. Too often, technological knowledge is presented as a pathway for individual advancement through participation in a digital economy that further consolidates power and wealth for corporations. During this time of physical isolation, how do we change the experience of being forced into endless video meetings and classrooms into something more like inhabiting and co-creating a digital commons? Can we create environments that allow people to engage with technology from a community context rather than as distanced individuals stuck staring at our screens?

The Internet’s culture is currently being shaped by corporations. Social media platforms, ISPs, and algorithms control our movements through almost all online space. Can we remake the Internet into a community that we can all inhabit, and move away from the metaphor of the Internet as an information superhighway? Perhaps we can begin to build the equivalent of sidewalks, public parks, and bike lanes.

As a generation faces an unprecedented year of school online, we would be wise to realize that this is an opportunity for all of us to learn together and become both more critical of how we engage technology and more aware of what we see is lacking. How do we want to form a community online, navigating, creating, and adapting online spaces for our collective survival?

Perhaps, unwanted though it is, the global pandemic can inspire us to finally create a digital world that is befitting of our time and presence there—and can inspire the justice, equality, and hope that our IRL world so badly needs right now. 


This post was adapted from an article by Diana J. Nucera that originally appeared in the January–May 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine. Nucera, aka Mother Cyborg, is an artist, educator, and community organizer who explores innovative technology with communities most impacted by digital inequalities. Post edited by Puck Lo; illustrations by Sylvia Pericles.

Civil Rights, education, COVID 19 impact, Michigan, Detroit, women's history, African American history, technology, by Diana J. Nucera, The Henry Ford Magazine

Woman with short brown hair wearing track jacket smiles toward camera
Lyn St. James, photographed by Michelle Andonian, 2008 / THF58574

Racing Career


Lyn St. James was watching from afar when Janet Guthrie was trying to break into Indy car and stock car racing. At the time, St. James was a part-time competitor chasing a Sports Car Club of America road-racing national championship in a Ford Pinto.

“I was excited and pumped about my racing, and I watched her on the television and thought, ‘God, she’s struggling and nobody wants her there,’” St. James recalled. “She didn’t smile very much, and it made me say, ‘Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to put myself in that kind of situation when I was having so much fun?’”

White and black helmet with dark visor and red trim; also contains text
This racing helmet worn by Lyn St. James is going on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America. / THF176437

In the early 1980s, Kelly Services sponsored the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) American Challenge championship and paid bonuses to female drivers. St. James parlayed an opportunity in that series, along with a chance encounter with legendary Ford executive Walter Hayes, into a highly successful relationship with Ford that produced six wins in IMSA competitions, including class victories at Daytona and Sebring, prior to shifting her focus to Indy cars. She is also the only woman to win an IMSA GT race driving solo.

Smiling woman in a jumpsuit and baseball cap, with large medal around her neck, holds a trophy in one hand and makes a thumbs-up with the other, in front of a wall with Ford and Budweiser logos, among others
Lyn St. James at IMSA, Watkins Glen, NY, 1985 / THF69459

“I wanted to test-drive one, just to experience the peak of race car performance,” she said. “I was just in heaven. I had set speed records in a stock car at Talladega, and in comparison, it felt numb. Dick Simon [IndyCar team owner] was very supportive, and that was a turning point. I wrote to 150 companies over four years seeking support. J.C. Penney was the 151st, but the first one that said yes.”

Finally, in 1992, St. James became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 since Guthrie last had, 15 years earlier. St. James finished 11th in the race, claiming Rookie of the Year honors (the first woman to do so). In 1994, she out-qualified reigning Indy car champion Nigel Mansell at Indy; she made a total of seven Indianapolis starts, with her last in 2000. She has been inducted into the Sports Car Club of America and the Florida Sports halls of fame, and held 21 international and national closed-circuit speed records over a 20-year period.

Collage with text and photos
Lyn St. James’s Indy 500 history from 1992 to 2000. / THF284826

Mentor of Motorsports


St. James still occasionally competes in vintage races, and in addition is a speaker, author, philanthropist, and coach, but spends most of her time mentoring female drivers. Her foundation’s driver development program has graduated more than 230 participants over the last 25 years, including then-future Indy car drivers Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.

Woman in blue jumpsuit stands behind a table, in front of a whiteboard, at the front of a room with young women sitting in school desks
Lyn St. James at her Complete Driver Academy, which provided a comprehensive education and training program for talented women race car drivers who aspired to attain the highest levels in motorsports, in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008 (photograph by Michelle Andonian). / THF58682

“It’s sad that leaders in motorsports have not figured out that the car levels the playing field for everyone,” St. James said. “The leaders have missed an opportunity to show how female involvement in racing really represents society. Women can perform and compete on an equal level.”

Involvement with The Henry Ford and

Driven to Win


In 2008, a small crew from The Henry Ford traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a race car driver academy for women. The institution, called Complete Driver Academy, was established by Lyn St. James in 1994 to help identify potential champion female drivers and provide the tools they needed to further their careers. The Henry Ford interviewed St. James there as part of its Visionaries on Innovation collection of video interviews, which also features other racing legends such as Mario Andretti.

Clear glass or lucite trophy with diagonal stripes, and two panels with an image of a man in an old-fashioned racing helmet and goggles and an antique car, and text
Lyn St. James’ 1992 Indianapolis 500 "Rookie of the Year" trophy will be on exhibit in Driven to Win. / THF176451


In addition to documenting St. James’ oral history, The Henry Ford has many artifacts from her racing career in its collections—some of which will be on display in the new Driven to Win: Racing in America permanent exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where St. James is a showcased driver. “Lyn has been an adviser to the exhibit going back more than ten years,” said Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson. “From the start, she has offered her help and advice, including connecting us with innovators like motorsports training expert Jim Leo of PitFit Training in Indiana.”

Among the racing-related artifacts from St. James that will be on display in Driven to Win: her helmet, driving suit, HANS (head and neck support) device, and Rookie of the Year trophy from the 1992 Indy 500, where she became the first woman to win that title. You can also explore many more artifacts related to St. James’ career in our Digital Collections.


This post was adapted from an article by John Oreovicz that originally appeared in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, racing, race car drivers, Indy 500, education, cars, by John Oreovicz

Woman in jumpsuit holding a helmet kneels on wood floor in a building next to low red race car with dramatic backlighting

Beth Paretta poses with the 1967 Ford Mark IV Race Car at The Henry Ford in 2018.

“When I was growing up, I had pictures of a Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 959 on my wall next to Duran Duran,” laughed Beth Paretta, the first female executive to lead a performance division for a major auto manufacturer.

After graduate school, Paretta took a job selling cars, then landed a management role with Volkswagen Credit. “That taught me the behind the scenes of the automotive business,” she shared. “It was a good opportunity to sit on all sides of the table, to figure out what the manufacturers and the dealers want, let alone the customers.”

She then spent four years as the U.S. operations manager for Aston Martin. Because the company was so small, this gave Paretta hands-on experience in every aspect of the business—a major factor why she was recruited by Ralph Gilles and the late Sergio Marchionne to lead the SRT brand when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) spun it off as a separate “halo” division.

Running SRT brought responsibility for managing FCA’s American motorsports programs, taking Paretta’s life full circle. During her tenure, FCA drivers won multiple championships in NASCAR and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). “Racing was a comfort for me since I was about 5 years old,” she said. “I found it weirdly soothing to watch, and I was mesmerized by it. At a basic level, I still find that. When I got involved, I loved solving business problems and figuring out how to do things better.”

Whether at VW, Aston, or FCA, Paretta often noticed something. “I spent much of my career sitting in meetings where I was the only woman at the table,” she said. “I’ll be honest, there were times at the beginning when I thought that was kind of cool. ‘Hey, look at me!’ But then I was like, ‘This isn’t cool at all. Why am I the only one here?’”

In 2015, Paretta formed Grace Autosport, using racing as a platform for encouraging young women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. She hopes to eventually field a car in IMSA or the Indianapolis 500 with a pioneering all-female team.

“Racing is the fuel that keeps the spotlight on what we are doing, but the important work is the education,” Paretta said. “We know we can affect a kid’s trajectory of what they want to do when they are 10-12 years old. That’s when you plant the real seed. Racing is fantastic because it demonstrates teamwork, and it’s applied STEM, or STEM in action.”


This post was adapted from an article by John Oreovicz that originally appeared in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

The Henry Ford Magazine, women's history, racing, education, cars, by John Oreovicz

The story of Frederick Douglass’s life is, at turns, tragic and awe-inspiring. He is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have some materials related to Douglass, as well as to the many areas of American history and culture he touched. What follows is an exploration of Frederick Douglass’s story through the lens of The Henry Ford’s collection, using our artifacts as touchpoints in Douglass’s life. 

Man with mustache and bushy hair sits in chair and looks at camera
This portrait of Douglass was taken circa 1860, around the time Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. / THF210623

Early Life & Escape


Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey by his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Tragically, Douglass only saw his mother a few times before her early death, when Douglass was just seven years old. Though he had few memories of his mother, he recalled her fondly and was proud to learn that she also knew how to read. He wrote that he was “quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess” to his mother. Few enslaved people could read at that time—Douglass’s pride in his mother was certainly justified.

In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld—extended family of his master, Aaron Anthony. This move to Baltimore would be transformative for Douglass. It not only exposed Douglass to the wider world, but was also where Douglass learned to read.

Douglass was initially taught to read by Sophia Auld, who considered him a bright pupil.  However, the lessons were put to a stop by Hugh Auld. It was not only illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, but Hugh also believed literacy would “ruin” Douglass as a slave. In a sense, Douglass agreed, as he came to understand the vast power of literacy. Douglass would later remark that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”

Douglass was determined to read. He “converted to teachers” some of the friendlier white children in the neighborhood. They showed him a school reader entitled The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, that he came to rely upon. In 1830, he purchased his own copy for 50 cents. The book—a collection of exceptional oration, poems, dialogue, and tips on the “art of eloquence”—became a great inspiration to Douglass. He carried it with him for many years to come.

Page with text
Page with text
The Columbian Orator” features a discussion between an enslaved person and their master which impressed Douglass. The enslaved person’s dialogue—referred to as “smart” by Douglass—resulted in the man’s unexpected emancipation. / THF621972, THF621973

As recollected in his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass’s teenage years were some of his most challenging. He became viewed as a “troublemaker.” He was hired out to different farmers in the area, including one who had the reputation as an “effective slave breaker” and was especially cruel. Knowing that a larger world awaited and facing a terrible quality of life, Douglass attempted an escape in 1836. The escape failed and he was put in jail.  Douglass was surprised to be released. He was sent not to the deep South as he had feared, but instead, back to Baltimore and the family of Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of caulking at the shipyards. While working there, Douglass was subjected to the animosities of his white coworkers, who beat him mercilessly—and were never arrested for it because a white witness would not testify and the word of a Black man was not admissible. He continuously dreamt of escape.

Book standing on end, open to title page containing text
In this first memoir, Douglass provides great detail into his early life. However, because he was still a fugitive at the time of publication, he omitted details related to his escape. / THF8133

Recalling the ships on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass wrote:

“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of the freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”

The ships’ freedom taunted him.

On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass courageously escaped slavery. Dressed as a sailor and using borrowed documents, he boarded a train, then a ferry, and yet another train to reach New York City—and freedom. His betrothed, a free Black woman named Anna Murray, followed, and soon after they were married. Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with hopes that Frederick could find work as a caulker in the whaling port. Instead, he took on a variety of jobs—but, finally, the money he earned was fully his.

The American Anti-Slavery Society & the Abolitionists


While living in New Bedford, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, for the first time. Douglass later wrote that the paper “took its place with me next to the Bible.” The Liberator introduced to Douglass the official abolitionist movement.

In August of 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. In an impromptu speech, he regaled the audience with stories of his enslaved past. William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists noticed—Douglass’s career as an abolitionist orator had begun. Douglass became a frequent speaker at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His personal story of life enslaved humanized the abolitionist movement for many Northerners—and eventually, the world.

In 1845, he published his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies! This would be followed by two more memoirs: My Bondage and Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

Newspaper page with text and woodcut illustration as masthead
This copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was published on August 16, 1839—around the time when Douglass first encountered the paper. / THF621979

Women’s Suffrage


Douglass was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement. He spoke at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in support of women’s rights.  In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”

While Douglass forcefully supported women’s suffrage, some of his actions put him at odds with others in the movement. He supported the adoption of the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed equality to all citizens—which included Black and white males, including the formerly enslaved. It did not include women. He also supported adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, which secured Black males the right to vote. Again, the amendment excluded women. Although a dedicated women’s rights activist, Douglass supported the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments as he believed the matter to be “life or death” for Black people. This put him in disagreement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as his friends. Despite this disagreement about timing, Douglass would continue to lecture in support of women’s equality and suffrage until his death.

John Brown’s Raid


Douglass was well-acquainted with famous abolitionist leader John Brown, first meeting him in 1847 or 1848. Brown became known for leading a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, intending to create an “army of emancipation” to liberate enslaved people. Douglass and Brown spoke shortly before John Brown’s raid. Brown had hoped that Douglass would join him, but Douglass declined. He believed that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”

Douglass was right. Brown was captured during the raid and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed. Brown became seen as an anti-slavery martyr, as the below print shows. Henry David Thoreau remarked about him, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…”

A letter from Douglass was found among John Brown’s belongings, leading to warrants for Douglass’s arrest as a conspirator. He was lecturing in Philadelphia at the time of the discovery. John Hurn, Philadelphia’s telegraph operator, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. He received a dispatch for the sheriff calling for Douglass’s arrest and both sent a warning to Douglass and delayed relaying the dispatch to the sheriff. Douglass fled and made it to Canada, narrowly escaping arrest. He then went abroad on a lecture tour, resisting apprehension in the States.

Print of Black woman holding child and kneeling at the feet of standing man in suit; man in uniform stands beside them
The text on this Currier & Ives print reads “John Brown—The Martyr: Meeting a Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of Charlestown Jail on his way to Execution. Regarding them with a look of compassion Captain Brown stooped and kissed the Child then met his fate." This did not actually occur, but became popular lore, as well as the subject of artwork and literature. / THF8053

The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln


In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. At the time, Douglass was not optimistic about the cause of abolition under Lincoln’s presidency. As tensions between the North and South grew and Civil War loomed, Douglass welcomed the impending war. As biographer David Blight states, “Douglas wanted the clarity of polarized conflict.”

Douglass got involved in the war effort through the recruitment of Black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Douglass first met President Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, when he visited the White House to discuss grievances against Black troops. Even without an appointment and a room full of people waiting, Douglass was admitted to see Lincoln after just a few minutes.

Print of Black men in blue uniforms, led by a white man in a blue uniform, clashing with men in gray uniforms
Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Lewis Douglass was appointed Sergeant Major, the highest rank that a Black person could then hold. / THF73704

Douglass would go on to advise Lincoln over the following years. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he asked Douglass his thoughts about it, adding, “There is no man in these United States whose opinion I value more than yours.”

On February 1, 1865, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of the United States Congress proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the “nail in the coffin” for the institution of slavery in the United States. But before the 13th Amendment could be ratified, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. While Douglass and Lincoln certainly disagreed on many topics, Douglass remembered him fondly. In his eulogy, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

After the Civil War and even after Reconstruction, Douglass held high-ranking government appointments—often becoming the first Black person to do so. Douglass was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.

Page with handwritten text and many signatures at the bottom
While Douglass certainly supported the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery, he did not think it went far enough. He remarked, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.” / THF118475

Douglass continued to lecture in support of his two primary causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, went home, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 77 years old.

Frederick Douglass remains one of the most inspirational figures in American history. We can still feel the weight of the words he wrote and spoke, more than 125 years after his passing. Douglass said, “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” This work continues.

Ebony magazine cover with text and image of Black man with bushy hair, beard, and mustache
Frederick Douglass remains a powerful symbol of the fight for racial justice and equality. Here, his image graces the cover of Ebony Magazine’s issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. / THF98736_REDACTED


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She appreciated the recently published book by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, as she conducted research for this post.

Civil Rights, #THFCuratorChat, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, education, women's history, voting, by Katherine White, books, African American history

Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:

“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”

One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.

Four men in suits wearing headphones sit at a table with equipment on the table and along the wall behind them
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856

Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.

At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.

Young men sit around a long table looking at a man standing at one end
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854

As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.

The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.

Engine sitting on a stand
1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1 / THF101039

To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second.  Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.

Machine on display under a sign with text, with images along wall behind
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795

During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.

Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, technology, radio, manufacturing, making, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, engines, engineering, education, by Ryan Jelso, African American history

A pattern of Black activism exists, a pattern evident in the work of individuals who dedicate themselves to improving the health and wellbeing of others. These individuals may best be described as “food soldiers.” They arm themselves with evidence from agricultural and domestic science. They build their defenses one market garden at a time. They ally with grassroots activists, philanthropists, and policy makers who support their cause. Past action informs them, and they in turn inspire others to use their knowledge to build a better nation.

Three Black women sit and stand around a table that holds food packages
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970. / THF620081

Food Sources


Food is one of life’s necessities (along with clothing and shelter). Centuries of legal precedent confirmed the need for employers to provide a food allowance (a ration), as well as clothing and shelter, to “bound” employees. For example, a master craftsman had to provide life’s necessities to an indentured servant, contracted to work for him for seven years, or a landowner was legally required (though adherence and enforcement varied) to provide food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved person, bound to labor for life. This legal obligation changed after the Civil War with the coming of freedom.

Landowner R.J. Hart scratched out the clause in a contract that obligated him to furnish “healthy and substantial rations” to a freedman in 1868. Hart instead furnished laborer Henry Mathew housing (“quarters”) and fuel, a mule, and 35 acres of land. In exchange, Mr. Mathew agreed to cultivate the acreage, to fix fencing, and to accept a one-third share of the crop after harvest. The contract did not specify what Mr. Mathew could or should grow, but cotton dominated agriculture in the part of Georgia where he lived and farmed after the Civil War.

Double image showing people of color picking cotton in a field with a large basket of cotton in foreground
Cotton is King, Plantation Scene, Georgia, 1895 / THF278900

This new agricultural labor system—sharecropping—took hold across the cotton South. As the number of people laboring for a share of the crops increased, those laborers’ access to healthy foods decreased. Instead of gardening or raising livestock, sharecroppers had to concentrate on cash-crop production—either cotton or more localized specialty crops such as sugar cane, rice, or tobacco. Anything they grew for themselves on their landlord’s property went first to the landlord.

Man hooks large basket up to a wooden framework in a clearing among buildings and trees as other people with baskets sit nearby
Postcard, "Weighing Cotton in the South," 1924 / THF8577

With no incentive or opportunity to garden, sharecroppers had few options but to buy groceries on credit from local merchants, who often were also the landowners. A failed crop left sharecroppers even more indebted, impoverished, and malnourished. This had lasting consequences for all, but race discrimination further disadvantaged Black Southerners, as sociologist Stewart Tolnay documented in The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms (1999).

As food insecurity increased across the South, educators added agricultural and domestic science to classroom instruction. Many schools, especially land-grant colleges, gained distinction because of this practical instruction. Racism, however, limited Black students’ access to education. Administrators secured private funding to deliver similar content to Black students at private institutes and at a growing number of public teacher-training schools across the South.

Brass microscope with long viewing tube, flat platform for specimens, and heavy brass feet
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900, when he taught agricultural science at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, as it was known at the time. / THF163071

Lessons in domestic science aligned with agricultural science most obviously in courses in market gardening. A pamphlet, Everyday Life at Hampton Institute, published around 1907, featured students cultivating, harvesting, and marketing fresh fruits and vegetables. Female students also processed and preserved these foods in domestic science classes. Graduates of these programs stood at the ready to share nutrition lessons. Many, however, criticized this training as doing too little to challenge inequity.

Men of color sit and stand around a piles of different vegetables at one side of a cobblestone street with buildings and horses and carriages behind them
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870

Undaunted food soldiers remained committed to arguing for the value of raising healthy foods to build healthy communities. They justified their advice by tying their self-help messages to other goals. Nature study, a popular approach to environmental education early in the twentieth century, became a platform on which agricultural scientist George Washington Carver built his advocacy for gardening, as Nature Study and Children’s Gardens (1910) indicates.

Page with text and photo of children in a field
Nature Study and Children's Gardens, circa 1910, page 6 / THF213304

Opportunity increased as the canning industry offered new opportunities for farm families to produce perishable fruits and vegetables for shipment to processors, as well as for home use. Black experts in agriculture and domestic science encouraged Black landowning farm families that could afford the canning equipment to embrace this opportunity. These families also had some local influence and could encourage broader community investment in new market opportunities, including construction of community canning centers and purchase of canning equipment to use in them.

Title page containing text
The Canning and Preserving of Fruits and Vegetables in the Home, 1912 / THF288039

Nutritionists who worked with Black land-owning farm families reached only about 20 percent of the total population of Black farmers in the South. Meeting the needs of the remaining 80 percent required work with churches, clubs, and other organizations. National Health Week, a program of the National Negro Business League, began in 1915 to improve health and sanitation. This nation-wide effort put the spotlight on need and increased opportunities for Black professionals to coordinate public aid that benefitted families and communities.

Black woman, seated, with infant on lap and toddler standing beside her
Nutritionists advocated for maternal health. This studio portrait features a woman with two children, circa 1920, all apparently in good health. / THF304686

New employment opportunities for nutritionists became available during the mid-1910s. Each Southern state created a “Negro” Division within its Agricultural Extension Service, a cooperative venture between the national government’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and each state’s public land-grant institution. Many hired Black women trained at historically Black colleges across the South. They then went on the road as home demonstration agents, sharing the latest information on nutrition and food preservation.

Woman at wheel of old-fashioned car with man visible in seat behind her; houses behind them
Woman driving Chevrolet touring car, circa 1930. Note that the driver of this car is unidentified, but she represents the independence that professional Black women needed to do their jobs, which required travel to clients and work-related meetings. / THF91594

Class identity affected tactics. Black nutritionists were members of the Black middle class. They shared their wellness messages with other professional women through “Colored” women’s club meetings, teacher conferences, and farmer institutes.

Home economics teachers and home demonstration agents worked as public servants. Some supervisors advised them to avoid partisanship and activist organizations, which could prove difficult. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), most noted for attacking inequity through legal challenges, first hosted Baby Contests in 1924. These contests had double meanings. For nutritionists, healthy babies illustrated their wellness message. Yet, “Better Baby” contests had a longer history as tools used by eugenicists to illustrate their race theory of white supremacy. The most impoverished and malnourished often benefitted least from these middle-class pursuits.

Round red button on black background with text "N.A.A.C.P 1948"
Button, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948 / THF1605

 

Nutrition

 

Nutrition became increasingly important as science linked vitamins and minerals to good health. While many knew that poor diets could stunt growth rates and negatively affect reproductive health, during the 1920s and 1930s medical science confirmed vitamins and minerals as cures for some diseases that affected children and adults living in poverty. This launched a virtual revolution in food processing as manufacturers began adding iodine to salt to prevent goiters, adding Vitamin D to milk to prevent rickets, and adding Vitamin B3 to flour, breads, and cereals to prevent pellagra.

Brown bottle with blue text and image of boy in overalls with Peter Pan-type hat
"Blue Boy Sparkle" Milk Bottle, 1934-1955 / THF169283

It was immediately obvious that these cures could help all Americans. The American Medical Association’s Committee on Foods called for fortifying milk, flour, and bread. The National Research Council first issued its “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in 1941. Information sharing increased during World War II as new wartime agencies reiterated the benefits of enriched foods.

Page with text of various sizes and colors
World War II Poster, "Enrichment is Increasing; Cereals in the Nutrition Program," 1942 / THF81900

Black nutritionists played a significant role in this work for many reasons. They understood that enriched foods could address the needs of Black Americans struggling with health concerns. They knew that poverty and unequal access to information could slow adoption among residents in impoverished rural Black communities. Black women trained in domestic science or home economics also understood how racism affected health care by reducing opportunities for professional training and by segregating care into underfunded and underequipped doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. That segregated system further contributed to ill health by adding to the stress level of individuals living in an unequal system.

Mobilization during World War II offered additional opportunities for Black nutritionists. The program for the 1942 Southern Negro Youth Conference at Tuskegee Institute addressed “concrete problems which the war has thrust in the forefront of American life.” Of the conference’s four organizing principles, two spoke directly to the aims of food soldiers: "How can Negro youth on the farms contribute more to the nation’s war production effort?” and “How can we strengthen the foundations of democracy by improving the status of Negro youth in the fields of: health and housing; education and recreation; race relations; citizenship?”

White page with blue-tinted text and multiple images
Program for the 5th All -Southern Negro Youth Conference, "Negro Youth Fighting for America," 1942 / THF99161

 

Extending the Reach

 

Food soldiers knew that the poorest suffered the most from malnutrition, but times of need tended to result in the most proactive legislation. For example, high unemployment during the Great Depression led to increased public aid. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new schools with cafeterias and employed dieticians to establish school lunch programs. Impoverished families also had access to food stamps to offset high food prices for the first time in 1939 through a New Deal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

White woman stands behind table laden with plates of food in wood-paneled room
Elizabeth Brogdon, Dietitian at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947 / THF135669

Elizabeth Speirs Brogdon (1915–2008) opened school lunchrooms under the auspices of the WPA in 19 Georgia counties for six years. She qualified for her position with a B.S. in home economics from Georgia State College for Women, the state’s teacher’s college, and graduate coursework in home economics at the University of Georgia (which did not officially admit women until after she was born).

While Mrs. Brogdon could complete advanced dietetics coursework in her home state, Black women in Georgia had few options. The Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, designated as Georgia’s Black land-grant school at the time, did not admit women as campus residents until 1921, and did not offer four-year degrees until 1928. Black women seeking advanced degrees in Home Economics earned them at Northern universities.

Flemmie Pansy Kittrell (1904–1980), a native of North Carolina and graduate of Virginia’s Hampton Institute, became the first Black woman to hold a PhD in nutrition (1938) from Cornell University. Her dissertation, “A Study on Negro Infant Feeding Practices in a Selected Community of North Carolina,” indicated the contribution that research by Black women could have made, if recognized as valid and vital.

Increased knowledge of the role of nutrition in children’s health informed Congress’s approval of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. In addition to this proactive legislation, some schools, including the school in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where dietitian Elizabeth Brogdon worked, continued the tradition of children’s gardens to ensure a fresh vegetable supply.

Black child holding large bunch of greens in a farm field of the same greens
Child in a School Vegetable Garden, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1940 / THF288200

The pace of reform increased with the arrival of television. The new medium raised the conscience of the nation by broadcasting violent suppression of peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations. This coverage coincided with increased study of the debilitating effects of poverty in the United States. Michael Harrington’s book The Other America (1962) increased support for national action to address inequity, including public health. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty” became a catalyst for community action, action that Kenneth Bancroft Clark analyzed in A Relevant War Against Poverty (1969).

Michigan examples indicate how agricultural policy expanded public aid during the 1960s. President Johnson’s War on Poverty expanded public programs. This included a new Food Stamp Program in 1964, a recommitment to school lunch programs, and new nutrition education programs, all administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nutritionists, including June L. Sears, played a central role in implementing this work.

Three Black women sit and stand around a table that holds food packages
“June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition,” May 1970. Rosemary Dishman served as a program aide and Dorothy Ford as supervising aide for Michigan’s Expanded Nutrition Program. / THF620081

Mrs. Sears earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit and taught home economics before becoming the “Family Living Agent” in the Cooperative Extension Service of Michigan State University (Michigan’s land-grant university). In that capacity, she, along with Rosemary Dishman and Dorothy Ford, worked with low-income families in two metropolitan Detroit counties (Wayne and Oakland), educating them about nutrition and meal planning. The USDA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), funded in 1969, sustained this work.

Public aid became a central component of U.S. farm bills by 1973. That year, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act reaffirmed the deployment of excess agricultural production to meet consumer need. Additional legislation, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), funded in 1975, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), evolved to meet need.

And need was great.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young explained in February 1975 that as many as 200,000 of his city’s 1.5 million citizens were undernourished. This extreme need existed despite efforts to address food insecurity, documented as an issue that mobilized protestors during the violent summer of 1967. Then, investigations by Detroit-based Focus: HOPE, a community advocacy organization, confirmed that food was more expensive for lower-income Detroiters than for some wealthier suburbanites, a condition now described as a “food desert.”

People of color stand by tables containing food in an industrial-looking space
“Depression's Harsh Impact at the Focus: HOPE Food Prescription Center in Detroit” Photograph, March 1975 / THF620068

Focus: HOPE staff opened a “Food Prescription Center,” stocked with USDA commodities that included enriched farina wheat cereal, canned meats, and other supplements.

Round button with top portion displaying a white hand and word "hope" on a black background, and the bottom half with the same elements but black and white reversed
Focus: HOPE Button, 1999 / THF98376

Commodity packaging has changed, as has farm policy over the years, but nutrition remains foundational to human health and well-being, and private and public partnerships remain essential to meeting need. The work continues with organizations such as Diversify Dietetics, Inc., which exists “to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition.”

 

Food & Freedom

 

While nutritionists worked with schools, cooperative demonstration programs, and public service organizations, another brigade of food soldiers linked farming to full citizenship.

Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer built her freedom struggle around land ownership and family farming. She founded Freedom Farms Cooperative to provide land to displaced sharecroppers, where they could grow crops and livestock and build self-esteem.

Hamer’s story, and those of other Black farm advocates, draw attention to a farm movement linked to the freedom struggle. A rich and growing body of scholarship indicates how much there is to learn about this movement. Two books, Greta De Jong’s You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (2016) and Monica M. White’s Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (2018), document the geographic range and approaches taken by food soldiers. White devotes a chapter to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network as an example of Northern urban agriculture.

Stalks and leaves in a plot with fall-colored trees in the background and a yellow, red, and green sign reading "D-Town" in the foreground
Brussel Sprout Stalks after Harvest, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, October 30, 2010 / THF87927

Other farmers write their own story, as does Leah Penniman, recipient of the James Beard Leadership Prize in 2019. She outlines best practices for establishing and sustaining a Black farm cooperative in her book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018).

Another model takes the form of social entrepreneurship, as undertaken by Melvin Parson, The Henry Ford’s first Entrepreneur in Residence (2019), funded by the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship. You can hear Farmer Parson (as his friends call him) compare his entrance into market gardening to taking a seat at the table as a full member of society.

A Black man kneels in a field, examining soil, next to a tiller
“Melvin Parson Gardening during the Entrepreneurship Interview” / THF295401

Farmer Parson founded We The People Growers Association (now We The People Opportunity Farm) to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into freedom.

A Black man walks in a field guiding a tiller, with houses and fencing in the background
“Melvin Parson Gardening during the Entrepreneurship Interview” / THF295369

What nutritionist would you feature in your poster depicting the power of healthy food and race activism?

Yellow t-shirt with black caricature drawing of a man with large fork along with text and images
“We The People Opportunity Center” T-Shirt, circa 2019 / THF185710

Learn more with a visit to our pop-up exhibit on the same topic in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation now through March 31.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

education, women's history, farming, agriculture, Civil Rights, African American history, by Debra A. Reid, food, #THFCuratorChat, Henry Ford Museum

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Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900 / THF163072

This microscope, reputedly used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, offers us a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education.

It took training to run educational laboratories, and administrators at Black schools sought qualified faculty to do the job. Booker T. Washington, principal at the private, historically Black Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver as the one person who could build an agricultural research program comparable to the ones available to whites through other public land-grant institutions. Carver was qualified, having earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1896, the first Black American to do so.

Austin W. Curtis, Jr., who assisted Carver in his laboratory between 1935 and Carver’s death in 1943, donated and affirmed Carver's use of this microscope. Through it (and other scientific instruments), Carver documented the molecular structure of organic matter—the plants, fungi, bacteria, soils, and sedimentary material of Alabama and beyond. He translated his findings into how-to pamphlets, sharing strategies that Black families in the South could use to improve their own health and the health of their soils. Carver’s pamphlets also introduced hundreds of new uses for plant-based materials, ranging from livestock feed and medicines to pigments and synthetic polymers.

The highest level of learning requires analysis of original research. This microscope supported that cause while in use at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and it continues to help us focus on Black history.

You can see Carver's microscope for yourself in the Agriculture: Innovations in Farming exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

by Debra A. Reid, education, agriculture, George Washington Carver, African American history, THF Connect app

For over a decade, we’ve partnered with educators from across the country to pilot our curriculum resources, professional development opportunities, and experiential learning programs centered around the concept of innovation. Through these close collaborations with expert practitioners and students, we’ve observed a universal ability to innovate—but we’ve also observed some challenges.

Research being conducted by Raj Chetty from Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project has highlighted these challenges and found that, “There are great differences in innovation rates based on income, race, and gender. Those differences don’t seem to be due to innate ability to innovate.” How can we even begin to combat this innovation opportunity gap?

One simple way is to expose learners to innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs—early and often. Therefore, The Henry Ford has adopted an Innovation Learning strategy, an interdisciplinary approach designed to accelerate an innovative mindset in all learners. The approach is powered by the perspective of our collections, which feature 26 million primary and secondary source artifacts that act as coaches and mentors by providing insight into 300 years of American innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.

Stories like…

  • A scientist who helped poor rural Southern African American farmers nurture depleted soil with nutritious crops that could also be sold for profit – George Washington Carver.
  • A soft-spoken African American seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man, an event that many believe sparked the Civil Rights movement – Rosa Parks.
  • A husband and wife duo considered by many as two of the world’s most prolific problem solvers and among the most important American designers of the 20th century – Charles and Ray Eames.
  • The writer of the first dictionary of the American English language – Noah Webster.
  • The iconic, quintessential inventor with 1,093 patents to his name – Thomas Edison.
  • An American industrialist with an entrepreneurial spirit who failed twice to establish an automobile company only to succeed on the third try – Henry Ford.


We connect these stories to core disciplines like STEM, Social Studies, Art & Design, English Language Arts, and combine them with emerging disciplines like Invention and Entrepreneurship.

Graphic with colorful diamonds with icons in them and text under them
Graphic with colorful octagons, each with an icon inside and text underneath

To make these interdisciplinary connections, we’ve developed a unique Innovation Learning Framework called Model i. Model i is a common language to talk across all disciplines. It is made up of two frames: (1) Habits of an Innovator and (2) Actions of Innovation, which can be used together to describe the innovation journeys within our collection, and activate learners of today through their own innovation journeys.

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This results in all learners seeing themselves as innovators, ready to tackle current or future challenges to help shape a better future.

Here’s some of the feedback from our pilot educators:

“The result of implementing and promoting Model i’s Habits and Actions has been amazing. Students have learned how to research topics, how to challenge a system, how to design then re-design, and most importantly how to fail in a safe environment to take a risk.” –Hollie Gumm, 2020 The Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award Winner

“The power of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Learning approach is that it transcends age, gender, socio-economic status, and academic level. I was able to present their curriculum to a group of fourth grade students comprised of many numbers. 100% free and reduced lunch, 75% English Language Leaners, 25% Special Education, and 10% homeless. With this being said, every single one of the students understood and connected with the content. They loved seeing real-world examples of how innovation has progressed over time. I think more often than not, these students had considered the idea of invention as something that is only done by ‘geniuses.' After working through the curriculum every one of my students began to see themselves as innovators, creators, and inspired individuals.” –Rachel Lamb, 2020 Colorado State Teacher of the Year Finalist

If you’re looking to connect with a community of innovative educators like Hollie and Rachel, filled with Innovation Learning resources, then you’re in luck. Launching in 2021, The Henry Ford’s inHub is a community built by educators for educators to empower learners to activate their innovative mindset to help build a better future. Visit inHub.thehenryford.org to learn more!


Phil Grumm is Senior Manager, Learning Services and On-site Programs, at The Henry Ford.

education, by Phil Grumm, innovation learning, educational resources

GIF cycles through video screenshots of girls with invention prototypes and/or explanatory displays

"It is innovative thinking such as this which dares to dream that we could travel to space, to the moon and eventually to Mars," said Joan Higginbotham, a former astronaut and director of human exploration primes at Raytheon Technologies. She was awarding this year's Most Innovative Award. The winner? Anirudh Cowlagi, inventor of AstroTrack, a Python-based solution to aid with the detection and characterization of minor planets in the solar system.


"Advances in the field of planetary science have been dramatic over the last few decades," Anirudh explained. "However, with this new data comes a need for more effective methods of analysis." Anirudh received a $2,500 scholarship, plus a hand-selected mentor from Raytheon Technologies to aid him in his innovation journey.

The Henry Ford's Invention Convention gives more than enough reason for hope during these challenging times. This year, over 120,000 K-12 students designed and pitched their creative solutions to the problems of the world, from potato-based plastic bags and energy-generating keyboards to more breathable face masks. These students were tasked with a single request: find a problem they care about and try to solve it.

With lockdowns and travel restrictions inhibiting many educational programs, The Henry Ford digitized Invention Convention within weeks. This quick pivot allowed The Henry Ford’s 20 affiliates to operate their programs and events despite the difficult circumstances. Among these affiliates was the Michigan Invention Convention, which had its most participants ever despite being held virtually. The Henry Ford similarly digitized its U.S. Nationals event, which culminated in an online award ceremony hosted by CBS science correspondent Alie Ward.

The award ceremony featured a number of keynote speakers and presenters, including several former astronauts, the director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, key executives including the CEO of Stanley Black & Decker and more than 80 award-winning young inventors. Nearly a dozen full patent applications were awarded to students.

The impact of the U.S. Nationals event has been astounding. As of mid-August, the award ceremony video had received over 40,000 views across its channels, with viewership of Invention Convention via news media with 500 million impressions this year. Most importantly, The Henry Ford continues to improve the accessibility and inclusion of the program. This year, over 54% of the inventors were female, and 55% of the winners self-identified as students of color.

The Henry Ford is grateful to its many partners and sponsors who continue to support and help build this vital program of innovation, invention and creative thinking — in particular, Raytheon Technologies, a founding sponsor of Invention Convention Worldwide and the presenting sponsor of U.S. Nationals 2020. Learn more about The Henry Ford's Invention Convention program at inventionconvention.org.

If you are interested in supporting this inspiring program or participating as a judge in 2021, keep an eye on The Henry Ford’s Invention Convention web page for updates in Spring of 2021.

COVID 19 impact, The Henry Ford Effect, innovation learning, education, inventors

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THF213753 / George Washington Carver at Dedication of George Washington Carver Cabin, Greenfield Village, 1942.

On this day in 1946, George Washington Carver Recognition Day was designated by a joint act of the U.S. Congress and proclaimed by President Harry S. Truman. Carver died just three years earlier on this day in 1943.

Immediately, public officials and the news media began to celebrate his life and create lasting reminders of his work in education, agricultural science, and art. Carver, mindful of his own legacy, had already established the Carver Foundation during the 15th annual Negro History Week, on February 14, 1940, to carry on his research at Tuskegee. It seems fitting to pay respects to Carver on his death day by taking a closer look at the floral beautis that Carver so loved, and that we see around us, even during winter.

Carver recalled that, “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis” [Kremer, ed., pg. 20]. He believed that studying nature encouraged investigation and stimulated originality. Experimentation with plants “rounded out” originality, freedom of thought and action.THF213747
THF213747 / George Washington Carver Holding Queen Anne's Lace Flowers, Greenfield Village, 1942.

Carver wanted children to learn how to study nature at an early age. He explained that it is “entertaining and instructive, and is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the great natural principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage” (Progressive Nature Studies, 1897, pg. 4). He encouraged teachers to provide each student a slip of plain white or manila paper so they could make sketches. Neatness mattered. As Carver explained, the grading scale “only applies to neatness, as some will naturally draw better than others.”

Neatness equated to accuracy, and with accuracy came knowledge. Farm families could vary their diet by identifying additional plants they could eat, and identify challenges that plants faced so they could correct them and grow more for market.

Carver understood how the landscape changed between the seasons, and exploring during winter was just as important as exploring during summer. Thus, it is appropriate to apply Carver’s directions about observing nature to the winter landscape around us, and to draw the winter botanicals that we see, based on directions excerpted from Carver’s Progressive Nature Studies (1897). (Items in parentheses added to prompt winter-time nature study - DAR and DE, 3 Jan 2018.)

  • Leaves – Are they all alike? What plants retain their leaves in winter? Draw as many different shaped leaves as you can.
  • Stems – Are stems all round? Draw the shapes of as many different stems as you can find. Of what use are stems? Do any have commercial value?
  • Flowers (greenhouses/florists) – Of what value to the plant are the flowers?
  • Trees – Note the different shapes of several different trees. How do they differ? (Branching? Bark?)  Which trees do you consider have the greatest value?
  • Shrubs – What is the difference between a shrub and a tree?
  • Fruit (winter berries) – What is fruit? Are they all of value?

Carver worked in greenhouses and encouraged others to use greenhouses and hot beds to start vegetables earlier in the planting system. The sooner farm families had fresh vegetables, the more quickly they could reduce the amount they had to purchase from grocery stores, and the healthier the farm families would be. 

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THF213726 / George Washington Carver in a Greenhouse, 1939.

In 1910, Carver included directions for work with nature studies and children’s gardens over twelve months. Selections from “January” suitable for nearly all southern states” included:

  • Begin in this month for spring gardening by breaking the ground very deeply and thoroughly
  • Clear off and destroy trash (plant debris) that might be a hiding place for noxious insects.
  • Cabbages can be put in hot beds, cold frames, or well-protected places.
  • Grape vines, fruit trees, hedges and ornamental trees should receive attention (pruning, fertilizing)
  • Both root and top grafting of trees should be done.
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THF213314 / Pamphlet, "Nature Study and Children's Gardens," by George Washington Carver, circa 1910.

Carver illustrated his own publications, basing his botanical drawings on what he observed in his field work. He conveyed details that his readers needed to know, be they school children tending their gardens, or farm families trying to raise better crops.

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THF213278 / Pamphlet, "Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama," by George Washington Carver, 1910 / page 12.

carver-illustration-1Edible wild botanicals, also known as weeds, appeared in late winter. Carver encouraged everyone from his students at Tuskegee to Henry Ford to consumer more wild greens year round, but especially in late winter when greens became a welcome respite from root crops and preserved meats which dominated winter fare. His pamphlet, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, prepared during World War II, featured numerous drawings of edible wild botanicals, also called weeds. Americans could contribute to the war effort by diversifying their diets with these greens that sprouted in the woods during the late winter and early spring. Carver illustrated each wild green, including dandelion, wild lettuce, curled dock, lamb’s quarter, and pokeweed. Following the protocol used in botanical drawing, he credited the source, as he did with several illustrations identified as “after C.M. King.” This referenced the work of Charlotte M. King, who taught botanical drawing at Iowa State University during the time of Carver’s residency there, and who likely influenced Carver’s approach to botanical drawing. King’s original of the “Small Pepper Grass” drawing appeared in The Weed Flora of Iowa (1913), written by Carver’s mentor, botanist Louis Hermann Pammel. 

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THF213586 / Pamphlet, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace," by George Washington Carver, March 1942.

To learn more about Carver, consult these biographies:

 

  • Hersey, Mark D. My Work is that of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
  • Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Greenwood, 2011.
  • Kremer, Gary R. ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
  • McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

To read more about Carver and Nature Study, see:

  • Carver, G. W. Progressive Nature Studies. (Tuskegee Institute Print, 1897), Digital copy available at Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98621#page/132/mode/1up
  • Harbster, Jennifer. “George Washington Carver and Nature Study,” blog, March 2, 2015, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/03/george-washington-carver-and-nature-study/

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Deborah Evans is Master Presenter at The Henry Ford.

winter, nature, natural history, George Washington Carver, education, by Debra A. Reid, by Deborah Evans, art, agriculture, African American history