American auto racing traditionally has been a white, male activity. In the early 20th century, people of color were outright banned from participating in several series. After those bans were lifted, Black drivers like Wendell Scott still faced discrimination from some fans and officials, and even from some of their fellow competitors.
Several racers fought intolerance by forming their own sanctioning bodies and sponsoring their own contests. Others worked within the existing system. They created associations to support marginalized drivers and teams, and to recognize the achievements of groundbreaking Black racers who had come before. Few people did as much for the cause as Leonard W. Miller, racing team owner and co-founder of the Black American Racers Association.
Leonard Miller became a lifelong gearhead after working on his parents’ 1937 Ford. / THF91674
Leonard Miller was born in 1934 and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traced his love of automobiles to his parents’ 1937 Ford. As a boy, Miller devoted countless hours to hot rodding the car—tweaking the engine in pursuit of a few more horsepower and a little more speed. His considerable mechanical skills grew even more in the late 1950s when he served in an automotive support company in the U.S. Army.
Miller’s interest in automobiles remained a lifelong passion. As a co-owner of Vanguard Racing, he entered a car in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. White driver John Mahler piloted the #31 car for the Vanguard team, but a broken piston forced him out of the race after 99 laps. Regardless of the results, Miller made history that day—Vanguard was the first Black-owned team to compete in the Indy 500. (It would be another 19 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to race in the 500.)
In 1973 Miller formed a new team, Black American Racers (BAR), with headquarters in New Jersey near Miller’s consulting firm. Over the next few years, and with African American drivers Benny Scott and Tommy Thompson added to the team, BAR raced in Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee competitions. Miller obtained a corporate sponsorship and began planning a return to the Indianapolis 500 with Black American Racers.
Wendell Scott co-founded the Black American Racers Association with Leonard Miller. As the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, Scott knew the hardships that Miller fought. / THF147632
At the same time, Leonard W. Miller championed Black racers everywhere. Together with Ron Hines, Wendell Scott, and Malcolm Durham, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973. BARA provided support and recognition for African American drivers, mechanics, and car owners in all forms of auto racing. The organization had nearly 5,000 members at its peak. BARA celebrated Black racing history too, and it published a review of past achievements in its Black American Racers Association Yearbook in 1974. In recognition of Miller’s efforts and achievements, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976—along with BAR driver Benny Scott.
Just when Miller’s dream for a return to Indy seemed within reach, his sponsor ended its racing activities after the 1975 season. Miller was unable to attract new sponsorship dollars. Then in 1978, Tommy Thompson died from injuries he suffered in a crash at Trenton International Speedway. Thompson’s death left Miller and the Black American Racers Association heartbroken, and the organization never really recovered. BARA disbanded in 1981.
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999
Mrs. Potts type flatiron made by A. C. Williams Company of Ravenna, Ohio, 1893-1910. THF171197
A "Cool Hand" Who Always Came to the "Point"
In the early 1870s, a young wife and mother had a better idea for making the arduous task of ironing easier. Her name was Mrs. Potts.
At this time, people smoothed the wrinkles from their clothing with flatirons made of cast iron. These irons were heavy. And needed to be heated on a wood stove before they could be used—then put back to be reheated once again when they began to cool. (Automatic temperature control was not to be had.)
Mary Florence Potts was a 19-year-old Ottumwa, Iowa, wife and mother of a toddler son when she applied for her first patent in October 1870, one reissued with additions in 1872. Mrs. Potts’ improved iron had a detachable wooden handle that stayed cool to the touch. (Conventional irons had cast iron handles that also got hot as the iron was heated on the stove— housewives had to use a thick cloth to avoid burning their hands.) Mrs. Potts’ detachable wooden handle could be easily moved from iron to iron, from one that had cooled down during use to one heated and ready on the stove. This curved wooden handle was not only cool, but also more comfortable—alleviating strain on the wrist.
Mrs. Potts’ iron was lighter. Rather than being made of solid cast iron, Mrs. Potts came up with idea of filling an inside cavity of the iron with a non-conducting material like plaster of Paris or cement to make it lighter, and less tiring, to use. (Florence Potts’ father was a mason and a plasterer, perhaps an inspiration for this idea.)
Previous iron design had a point only on one end. Mrs. Potts’ design included a point on each end, to allow the user to use it in either direction.
Mrs. Potts appeared on trade cards advertising her irons. This one dates from about 1883. THF214641
Mrs. Potts’ innovations produced one of the most popular and widely used flatirons of the late 19th century. It was widely manufactured and licensed in the United States and Europe with advertising featuring her image. Mrs. Potts’ iron was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Millions of visitors attended the exhibition.
The Potts iron became so popular that by 1891, special machines were invented that could produce several thousand semicircular wood handles in a single day, rather than the few hundred handles produced daily with earlier technology. Mrs. Potts' type irons continued to be manufactured throughout the world well into the twentieth century.
Though Mrs. Potts proved her inventive mettle with her innovative flatiron design, it appears that she did not reap spectacular financial rewards—at least by what can be discerned from census records and city directories. By 1873, the Potts family had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, where her daughter Leona was born. They were still living there in 1880, when the census mentions no occupation given for any family member. Perhaps, if Mrs. Potts and her family became people of leisure, it was only for a time. Whether through need or desire, the Potts family had moved to Camden, New Jersey by the 1890s, where Joseph Potts and son Oscero worked as chemists. Joseph Potts died in 1901. By 1910, Florence and Oscero were mentioned as owners of Potts Manufacturing Company, makers of optical goods.
Mrs. Potts’ creativity made the tough task of ironing less onerous for millions of women in the late 19th century. And—though most are unaware—the story of the inventive Mary Florence Potts lives on in the many thousands of irons still found in places like antique shops and eBay.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Tucked away among the rolling stock and locomotives on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is an unassuming piece of railroad equipment, modest and apparently devoid of style or character. This little locomotive is one of the most significant items in the collection. It is one of the first locomotives to successfully use internal combustion instead of steam as its power source.
The decline of steam By the mid-1920s the design and development of steam locomotives had become rigorous and scientific. The dominance of steam, however, was being challenged. Could the internal combustion engine with its higher efficiency, ease of operation, and reliance on cheap fuel become an alternative power source for railroad operations? Smoke abatement rulings in Chicago and New York City provided a further incentive for researching alternatives to steam power.
Success with internal combustion General Electric's internal combustion engine/railroad interests dated back to 1904. However, by 1920 they had not developed a suitable engine. In late 1923, the Ingersoll-Rand Company successfully developed a locomotive to General Electric's specifications. Over the next 13 months it was tested on 10 different railroad systems. Its success led to a production run of variant engines that ended in 1937 when Ingersoll-Rand withdrew from the locomotive-building field. Cheaper than steam The American Locomotive Company supplied the car bodies for these early locomotives. Assembly took place at the General Electric plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. Ingersoll-Rand supplied the engines, building their sales pitch around low operating cost. Number 90, the sixteenth unit built, was delivered in December 1926 and used as a promotional demonstrator, switching in Ingersoll-Rand's Phillipsburg, New Jersey, plant rail yards.
Ingersoll-Rand's Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, probably 1926. THF271020
Efficient design Number 90's blunt appearance hardly suggests speed or glamour, but compared to steam locomotive switchers its angular outline appears neat and businesslike. The operator's positions -- located at either end -- are clean and tidy, partitioned from the heat of the engine, located in the center of the car. The locomotive's operation is streamlined even if its style is minimal. Subsequent collaborations between industrial designers and railroad companies produced locomotive designs that would further emphasize Number 90's utilitarian appearance.
The job of the switcher Switchers worked out their years in dirty yards assembling the freight trains that were as much a part of the railroad experience as the fastest overnight express. Number 90 continued in use as a switcher in the Ingersoll-Rand plant until the late 1960s by which time the diesel revolution that it had helped begin had swept steam power aside in the United States.
Maker: General Electric/Ingersoll-Rand/American Locomotive Company Engine: 6-cylinder diesel Horsepower: 300 @ 550 rpm. Displacement: 5655 cu. in. Generator: 200 kilowatts, 600 volts Traction motors: 4 @ 95 horsepower each Weight: 60 tons Tractive effort: 36,000 lbs. Speed: 30 mph. Gift of Ingersoll-Rand Company
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director of Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.
Today marks the first day of #MuseumWeek, a week-long global celebration of culture in which The Henry Ford is taking part in. This celebration will channel the power of social media to raise greater awareness and appreciation for the world’s cultural resources. With the use of social media, #MuseumWeek is inherently taking advantage of the abilities that we now take for granted. We can capture sound, video, and still images, as well as be electronically connected to almost anyone in the human family. All in the palm of our hand. In mere seconds, you can see what I see, you can hear what I hear, and you can know what I know. It’s this knowing, which I believe, is the most important part for museums. I think that the simple act of learning about something new, broadens your perspective. It allows you to reanalyze the world you experience to incorporate what you’ve learned. It allows you to reflect. Museums sharing this ability to know over social media can help expand everyone’s perspective. That’s why museums and the cultural resources they protect are crucial to our society.
I thought it was only right that I use this blog post to talk about someone who played a major role in making our social media connection possible: Thomas Edison. Pioneer in electricity, sound, and video. His inventions laid the groundwork for the digital age we know today and the social media network that we increasingly rely upon. The objects I chose to represent him give us an inside look at the story of a man who redefined what it meant to “work.”