George Washington Carver was born into an enslaved family during the American Civil War. Carver was separated from his mother and sister when they were kidnapped by raiders. The kidnapper’s returned Carver to the plantation after an agreement was made with the owner, however Carver’s mother and sister were not returned with him. His educational pursuits led him to take an interest in pesticides and soil chemistry. Carver graduated from Minneapolis High School in Kansas in 1880. He was accepted to Highland University but upon his arrival was refused attendance on account of his race. Despite this, he persevered, and Carver was the first African American enrolled at Iowa State University.
However, his real success came in teaching poor farmers about natural fertilisers and his crop rotation method. He showed that nitrogen-fixing plants, for example, peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes could replenish soil nutrients and greatly increase cotton yields. Carver created many products which utilised the sudden surplus of these products, for example, peanut butter, earning him the nickname of “The Peanut Man”. In his later years, he became a minor celebrity and represented the peanut industry before the U.S. House of Representatives. George Washington Carver died on 5thJanuary 1943 and received the honour of his own monument, that stands in Diamond, Missouri along with numerous other accolades.
Gladys Mae West was born in 1930 in a rural farming community in Virginia. Her family owned a small farm and she often helped with harvesting the crops but was unsatisfied with this life from a young age. At school, Gladys was top of her class and was offered a scholarship to a Virginia State University. Gladys was unsure what subject to major in but eventually decided on maths, a typically male-dominated subject. She began her career at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in the US state of Virginia in 1956. West was the second Black woman hired and one of only four Black employees at the time. West’s job was to collect and analyse information from satellites to determine their precise location and model the Earth’s shape. It was this work that was vital in producing the mathematics behind what is known today as GPS (Global Positioning System).
In 1979 West was nominated by her departmental head for a commendation and was promoted to project manager for a satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Gladys retired in 1998. After retiring, West completed a PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. West was selected by the BBC as part of their 100 Women of 2018. She was also recognised by the Air Force Space Command as one of the hidden figures of computing for the US military before electronic systems.
Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama in 1956. Jemison knew from a young age that she wanted to go to space and credited Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek as nurturing her interest in space. She graduated high school in 1973 as a consistent honour student and enrolled at Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship when she was 16. Jemison was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering along with a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African American studies from the university in 1977. Jemison then attended Cornell Medical School. During her training she travelled to Cuba and Kenya and later served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia.
When Jemison returned to the United States in 1985, she decided to follow her lifelong dream and applied for admission to NASA’s astronaut training program and was accepted a year later. After a year of training in 1988, she became the first female African American astronaut. Jemison was responsible for conducting crew-related scientific experiments on the second mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. On the 12th September 1992, aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47, Jemison became the first African American woman in space and spent eight days in orbit. Since leaving NASA she has established the Jemison Group, a company that researches and develops advanced technology.