History shapes our lives even today. Each February, the celebration of Black History Month reminds us to reflect on African American contributions to the fabric of American society. While some stories ring louder than others, even the hidden stories of our history influence each of our lives. When we celebrate our history, we uncover lessons that help us grow. When we honor our most marginalized historical figures, we embrace the opportunity to grow closer together. And when we connect with new stories, we begin to see life in new ways.
As we honor the contributions that make Black History Month so special, we’d like to share the stories of select historical figures who’ve enabled us to further the fields of business and technology.
Maggie L. Walker
Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1864, while the city was still the capital of the Confederacy. She was born to an enslaved mother during the Civil War, who eventually went on to work as a laundress. When her father died, she began working to support her family and, after graduating, became a teacher.
When she was 14 years old, Walker joined the Order of St. Luke’s, an organization dedicated to supporting Richmond’s sick and elderly. After many years with the organization, she established a community insurance company for women. In 1903, she made history as the first African-American woman in the United States to charter and serve as the president of a bank. The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank went on to become a source of economic independence, where Richmond’s Black community could open bank accounts, apply for mortgages, and investment capital.
“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”Maggie L. Walker
Gladys West was born in Sutherland, Virginia in 1930. She was raised in a sharecropping community where her mother worked in a tobacco factory and her father labored as a farmer and railroad worker. From a young age, West wanted to escape life on the farm and saw education as her path forward. After completing her primary education, she earned a scholarship to study at the historically black college, Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), where she received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and was recognized as her class’ valedictorian. Following her undergraduate studies, West worked briefly as a math and science teacher before returning to Virginia State to earn her Master of Mathematics in 1955.
“I carried that load round, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be…always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women.”Gladys West
In 1956, West joined the Navy Proving Ground as a programmer, where she became the second African American woman ever to be hired, and one of four African American employees. During the 1960’s, West served as a programmer for the Navy’s large-scale computers where she managed the data processing systems used to analyze satellite data. Later, her work supported a study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. She also worked as a project manager on the Seasat radar altimetry project which monitored oceans. However, Gladys West is most recognized for her work programming the IBM 7030 Stretch computer which provided calculations for a geodetic Earth model and would later become the foundation for the global positioning system (GPS).
Committed to lifelong education, Gladys west continued to pursue her studies. She went on to earn a second Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma, before earning her PhD in public administration from Virginia Tech.
Janet Emerson Bashen
Janet Emerson was born February 12, 1957, in Mansfield, Ohio. Her family later moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where Emerson was educated. She later studied at the historically black university Alabama A&M. Bashen pursued her graduate degree in legal studies at the University of Houston and the Rice University Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration. She also holds a master’s degree in labor and employment law from the Tulane School of Law.
While working in equal opportunity claims for an insurance provider, Bashen discovered an approach to streamline the management of discrimination complaints. She ultimately turned her idea into a business, Bashen Corp., which managed equal opportunity claims. At the turn of the millennium, as more companies started to conduct business online, Bashen developed a solution that would ensure that all casework files were stored and managed online. In 2006, Bashen filed a patent for her equal opportunity web application software, LinkLine, becoming the first African American woman to obtain a software patent. Today, Bashen continues to manage tools and software that promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“My success and failures make me who I am and who I am is a black woman raised in the south by working-class parents who tried to give me a better life by fostering a fervent commitment to succeed.”Janet Emerson Bashen
As we take this month to reflect, we’re grateful for the ways in which these and other African American contributions have helped shape American society. If you’d like to learn more about Black history or celebrate Black History Month, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.