Past Forward

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Corner of room with chairs, windows, and doors
Interior of Henry Ford’s Private Railroad Car, “Fair Lane,” June 22, 1921 / THF148015


Beginning in 1921, Henry and Clara Ford used their own railroad car, the Fair Lane, to travel in privacy. Clara Ford designed the interior in consultation with Sidney Houghton, an interior designer based in London. The interior guaranteed a comfortable trip for the Fords, their family, and others who accompanied them on more than 400 trips between 1921 and 1942.

The view out the railcar windows often featured the landscape between Dearborn, Michigan, and Richmond Hill, Georgia, located near Savannah. The Fords purchased more than 85,000 acres in the area, starting in 1925, remaking it into their southern retreat.

On at least three occasions, Henry Ford might have looked out that Fair Lane window, observing changes in the landscape between Richmond Hill and a siding (or short track near the main railroad tracks, where engines and cars can be parked when not in use) near Tuskegee, Alabama. Henry Ford took the railcar to the Tuskegee Institute in 1938, 1941, and 1942, and Clara accompanied Henry at least twice.

Two men, one Black and one white, pose in front of a car
Henry Ford and George Washington Carver, Tuskegee, Alabama, March 1938 / THF213839

Henry first met with George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis at Tuskegee on March 11, 1938. A small entourage accompanied him, including Ford’s personal secretary, Frank Campsall, and Wilbur M. Donaldson, a recent graduate of Ford’s school in Greenfield Village and student of engineering at Ford Motor Company.

Group of men walk on a sidewalk between grass and trees
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford on the Tuskegee Institute Campus, 1938. / THF213773

Photographs show these men viewing exhibits in the Carver Museum, installed at the time on the third floor of the library building on the Tuskegee campus (though it would soon move).

Five men in suits look at items some of them are holding in their hands
Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson, and Frank Campsall Inspect Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF 213794

Man gestures to a table covered in glass jars while other men look on
Frank Campsall, Austin Curtis, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF214101

Clara accompanied Henry on her first trip to Tuskegee Institute, in the comfort of the Fair Lane, in March 1941. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson met them at the railway siding in Chehaw, Alabama, and drove them to Tuskegee. While Henry visited with Carver, Clara received a tour of the girls’ industrial building and the home economics department.

During this visit, the Fords helped dedicate the George W. Carver Museum, which had moved to a new space on campus. The relocated museum and the Carver laboratory both occupied the rehabilitated Laundry Building, next to Dorothy Hall, where Carver lived. A bust of Carver—sculpted by Steffen Thomas, installed on a pink marble slab, and dedicated in June 1937—stood outside this building.

The dedication included a ceremony that featured Clara and Henry Ford inscribing their names into a block of concrete seeded with plastic car parts. The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most influential Black newspapers, reported on the visit in its March 22, 1941, issue. That story itemized the car parts, all made from soybeans and soy fiber, that were incorporated—including a glove compartment door, distributor cap, gearshift knob, and horn button. These items symbolized an interest shared between Carver and Ford: seeking new uses for agricultural commodities.

Person wearing hat sits, head tipped down toward a wooden crate, while other people look on
Clara Ford, face obscured by her hat, inscribes her name in a block of concrete during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Others in the photograph, left to right: George Washington Carver; Carrie J. Gleed, director of the Home Economics Department; Catherine Elizabeth Moton Patterson, daughter of Robert R. Moton (the second Tuskegee president) and wife of Frederick Douglass Patterson (the third Tuskegee president); Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson; Austin W. Curtis, Jr.; an unidentified Tuskegee student who assisted with the ceremony; and Henry Ford. / THF213788

Man sits at crate while other people look on
Henry Ford inscribing his name in a block of cement during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, Tuskegee Institute, March 1941 / THF213790

After the dedication, the Fords ate lunch in the dining room at Dorothy Hall, the building where Carver had his apartment, and toured the veterans’ hospital. They then returned to the Fair Lane railcar and headed for the main rail line in Atlanta for the rest of their journey north.

President Patterson directed a thank you letter to Henry Ford, dated March 14, 1941. In this letter, he commended Clara Ford for her “graciousness” and “her genuine interest in arts and crafts for women, particularly the weaving, [which] was a source of great encouragement to the members of that department.”

The last visit the Fords made to Tuskegee occurred in March 1942. The Fair Lane switched off at Chehaw, where Austin W. Curtis, Jr., met the Fords and drove them to Tuskegee via the grounds of the U.S. Veterans’ Hospital. Catherine Patterson and Clara Ford toured the Home Economics building and the work rooms where faculty taught women’s industries. Clara rode in the elevator that Henry had funded and had installed in Dorothy Hall in 1941, at a cost of $1,542.73, to ease Carver’s climb up the stairs to his apartment.

The Fords dined on a special luncheon menu featuring sandwiches with wild vegetable filling, prepared from one of Carver’s recipes. They topped the meal off with a layer cake made from powdered sweet potato, pecans, and peanuts that Carver prepared.

Tuskegee shared the Fords’ itinerary with Black newspapers, and the April 20, 1942, issue of Atlanta Daily World carried the news, “Carver Serves Ford New Food Products.” They concluded, in the tradition of social columns at the time, by describing what Henry and Clara Ford wore during the visit. “Mrs. Ford wore a black dress, black hat and gloves and a red cape with self-embroidery. Mr. Ford wore as usual an inconspicuously tailored business suit.”

Dr. Patterson wrote to Henry Ford on March 23, 1942, extending his regrets for not being at Tuskegee to greet the Fords. Patterson also reiterated thanks for “Mrs. Ford’s interest in Tuskegee Institute”—“The people in the School of Home Economics are always delighted and greatly encouraged with the interest she takes in the weaving and self-help project in the department.”

The Fords sold the Fair Lane in 1942. After many more miles on the rails with new owners over the next few decades, the Fair Lane came home to The Henry Ford. Extensive restoration returned its appearance to that envisioned by Clara Ford and implemented to ensure comfort for Henry and Clara and their traveling companions. Now the view from those windows features other artifacts on the floor of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in place of the varied landscapes, including those around the Tuskegee Institute, traveled by the Fords.

Rail car interior containing chairs, doors, windows, and arched ceiling
A view of the interior of Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car, the “Fair Lane,” constructed by the Pullman Company in 1921, restored by The Henry Ford to that era of elegance, and displayed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF186264


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

Ford family, women's history, travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, education, Clara Ford, by Debra A. Reid, African American history

As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.


Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.

Painting of memorial with image of George Washington in center, angel to one side and soldier weeping in front
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971

This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.

In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.

Oval-shaped painting of woman in white dress leaning on a memorial containing text
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513

Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Painting of four women in varying styles of white gowns, one holding flowers and one greenery
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522

The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.

Person in long black dress or gown leaning against a memorial containing text, next to a tree
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816

This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.

Painting of woman in gray dress leaning despondently on one of two memorials containing text
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259

The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.

Painting with urn shape containing text, surrounded by six white birds with yellow wings and vines
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542

The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.

By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

education, presidents, making, women's history, paintings, art, home life, holidays, by Charles Sable

What is your personal connection to The Henry Ford? For many, it’s the memories that have been made during visits to the museum and village. Others, it’s the stories told, artifacts observed, or the people who paved the way for future generations. For Linda Apsey, it was Thomas Alva Edison—his commitment to the utility industry, collaboration with Henry Ford, and future electrification of our society. For Carla Walker-Miller, it is the outreach that The Henry Ford is doing with Detroit Public Schools, the Rosa Parks Bus, and the story that sheds light on the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion.

While each connection is different, they both share a common theme—access to education, history, and innovation for all, regardless of background or barrier. At this time in our institution’s history, we believe that both leaders will bring invaluable knowledge and perspective based on their experiences. These women are truly remarkable individuals who value our mission and will inspire others for generations to come.

Linda Apsey is currently the President and CEO of ITC Holdings Corp. and is responsible for the company’s strategic vision, business operations, and all subsidiaries. She has held many roles throughout her career that have shaped her into the successful businesswoman she is today. Before she was President and CEO, she served as Executive Vice President and Chief Unit Officer at ITC Holdings Corp.

Wood board with small parts and wires attached to it; tag with handwritten text sits next to the board
Linda Apsey is inspired by the stories The Henry Ford can tell with its collections related to Thomas Edison, including his patent model for the electrical distribution system. / THF154126

Apsey is most looking forward to Invention Convention Worldwide. “Invention Convention provides kids across the country with a space and place for imagination to come to life. And that is amazing to observe and be part of!” This program at The Henry Ford allows young minds to tap into their can-do spirit and engage with other students and professionals throughout the world. Invention Convention is one of the unique, educational programs and initiatives that The Henry Ford is using to emphasize the importance of learning and access to education. “THF has developed many exciting programs to tap into the energy, passion, and creative minds of our future generations through teaching, experimentation, and competitions, all of which provides opportunity, access, and collaboration for growing minds.”

Carla Walker-Miller is the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services. She is a changemaker in the energy industry and strives to inspire those she encounters. Walker-Miller Energy Services is one of the largest energy waste reduction companies in the country founded and owned by an African American woman.

Walker-Miller is greatly inspired by the community outreach The Henry Ford (THF) is doing in metro Detroit, particularly Detroit Public Schools. “Like most people, I had no idea before I joined the board the amount of work this institution is doing and the commitment The Henry Ford has made in educating our children. The work THF is doing with Detroit Public Schools is so thoughtful and intentional and I’m amazed at the impact The Henry Ford is having.”

Interior of a bus with green bench seats
Carla Walker-Miller feels welcomed by the presence of the Rosa Parks Bus in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF167250

Being able to inform and educate others about the many different stories and lessons we have learned throughout American history is very important. The Henry Ford is committed to telling the stories of the brave men and women who were the catalysts for change in racial equity. Carla Walker-Miller agrees that the acquisition of the Rosa Parks Bus in the early 2000s was a monumental step for The Henry Ford. “In my heart, that acquisition felt like an acknowledgement that Black history is American history. It may as well have been a bridge, because it felt like a welcome, like a personal invitation to visit. I will never forget the photo of President Barack Obama on that bus. It spoke to me and so many other people of many races.”

Linda Apsey and Carla Walker-Miller both agree that The Henry Ford is a place that is meant to be treasured. To our current donors who believe in the mission and value of The Henry Ford, thank you! For those who may be new to The Henry Ford and are still learning about the institution, we invite you to dive deeper into our mission. For Apsey, “Investing in THF is not only an investment in our rich industrial history of innovation and automation, but more importantly an opportunity to invest in the hearts, souls, and minds of future generations. THF is a world-class institution whose history has just begun!” To Carla Walker-Miller, “The Henry Ford offers a warm introduction to this country’s history. They are committed to making the institution inclusive and accessible to all and to say, ‘Everyone is welcome here.’” We are very lucky to have these two passionate executives help take The Henry Ford to new levels and reach the hearts and minds of future generations.


Caroline Heise is Annual Fund Specialist at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Detroit, education, entrepreneurship, Invention Convention Worldwide, The Henry Ford Effect, by Caroline Heise, African American history, women's history, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Detroit native Frederick Birkhill can recount numerous memories of his time at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village as a child. He can remember riding his bike through the village, taking in all that its history and grounds offered. Truly enamored with Liberty Craftworks, he spent most of his time there, observing the artisans perfecting their crafts.

During one school field trip, his class observed employee Neils Carlson giving a glassblowing demonstration. From five feet away, the students watched Carlson pull and shape a hot, glowing blob into a graceful swan. This was the exact moment that Birkhill fell in love with glassmaking and knew he wanted to learn everything about it. After the demonstration, he bought one of the glass swans for his mother and studied it whenever he could.

Black and white image of young boy sitting on chair looking at camera on a strap around his neck
Frederick as a child with a camera, circa 1959. / Photo by Dr. F. Ross Birkhill, courtesy Frederick Birkhill

Few people can pinpoint the place where they found their passion. Frederick Birkhill can. Anyone who comes to The Henry Ford can find something that excites them and sparks their future passions. That single experience in the Glass Shop stuck with Birkhill and led him on a path to a very successful career as an artist. Because of Neils Carlson, Birkhill's thirst for knowledge took off, leading him to study in England, elsewhere in Europe, and at what is now the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In the early years of his career, Birkhill was an employee of Greenfield Village and worked in the Tintype Studio. During his tenure, he was able to study and learn about glassblowing, stained glass, photography, daguerreotypes, and tintypes from various artisans around Liberty Craftworks and metro Detroit. At the time, The Henry Ford was one of the only places in the United States where one could learn about tintype photography and other specialized crafts. Birkhill created some of his first daguerreotype photos of scenes at The Henry Ford. One of those early daguerreotypes of Greenfield Village's Farris Windmill was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Black-and-white image of windmill in frame"The Windmill at Greenfield Village, 1972,” daguerreotype created by Frederick Birkhill, in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History / Photo courtesy Frederick Birkhill  

In addition to learning about different media during his time working in the village, Birkhill was able to use his skills and artistry to teach an array of subjects at The Henry Ford, including classes he developed on the history of glass and stained glass.

Birkhill also collaborated with David Grant Maul, another former employee. Birkhill acquired a special tool from Maul that allowed him to hold hot glass so he could effectively complete flame-worked glass objects. This tool was the catalyst for a successful career in flame-worked glass and furnace glass. Our Glass Shop includes a furnace that allowed Birkhill to learn both specialties.

Frederick Birkhill is a renowned artist, inventor, educator, and historian whose international career continues to this day. His work can be seen at the Corning Museum of Glass, Museum of Arts and Design, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Mint Museum, the Smithsonian, and the Stamelos Gallery Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as in private collections around the world. Never once has Birkhill forgotten the place that sparked his curiosity and put his ideas into motion—The Henry Ford.

Man in workshop holds glass in a flame, seen in a reflection in a mirror on the wallFrederick Birkhill flameworking in his studio. / Photo by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy Frederick Birkhill

Now, after several decades as a glass artist, an artist's monograph, Glassworks: The Art of Frederick Birkhill, has been published by The Artist Book Foundation. An extensive colorplate section includes the lavish photography of Henry Leutwyler, showcasing Birkhill's work in complex detail as well as his artistic mastery of glass. A copy now resides in The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center. We are honored to have Frederick and his wife, Jeannie, as friends of The Henry Ford.


Caroline Heise is Annual Fund Specialist at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village buildings, The Henry Ford Effect, photography, Michigan, making, Greenfield Village, glass, education, Detroit, by Caroline Heise, books, art

Through an initiative funded by The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and The Avangrid Foundation, the Invention Convention Worldwide team at The Henry Ford has created a pathway to connect sustainability to invention for our students in the classroom. Through the lens of biomimicry, student inventors examine how some of humanity’s greatest inventions have been formed by the world around them and how they can tap into nature to find sustainable solutions, while problem solving by using biomimicry.

A great example of this comes from Florida fifth grader and 2020 Invention Convention participant Xavier Baquero-Iglesias and his invention SoleX Turf: Good for Your Sole, Good for Your Plant. SoleX Turf is an invention that uses the principle of photosynthesis and the practice of biomimicry. This artificial turf uses the principles of photosynthesis to collect and create energy from the sun while cooling the temperature of the turf to be more enjoyable for players.

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childhood, philanthropy, inventors, Invention Convention Worldwide, innovation learning, educational resources, education, by Samantha Johnson, by Mitch Hufnagel, by Devin Rittenhouse, by Alisha Hamblen

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