A Snapshot of Black History in Telecom

Black Americans have made tremendous contributions throughout America’s history in the fields of science, technology and telecommunications. During the month of February, we celebrate these achievements, many of which were made despite the headwinds of discrimination.  

This February, we’re honoring the contributions of Black Americans to the advancement of the telecommunications industry by recognizing a widely known telecommunications policy trailblazer along with a Black inventor who helped push the boundaries of communications technology.

Both individuals represent a snapshot of how Black Americans have taken part in the advancements and progress that defines the telecommunications industry, often against great odds and challenging circumstances.

Granville Woods – Prolific Inventor

Granville Woods was a Black inventor who was born in Columbus, Ohio, on April 23, 1856. During his lifetime, he helped push the boundaries of communications technology and held more than 50 patents in the United States.

Woods was born nine years before the end of the Civil War. He was forced to leave school at the age of 10 due to his family’s poverty but went on to become the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer and one of the most prolific inventors of his time. 

His two most significant contributions to the early telecommunications industry were his inventions of the “telegraphony” and the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph.

The device Woods called the “telegraphony” was an apparatus he patented that was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. Later purchased by the American Bell Telephone Company, it allowed telegraph stations to send voice and telegraph messages through Morse code over a single wire.  

Perhaps his most prominent invention, Woods’ Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph allowed messages to be sent to and from moving trains in any direction. It was operated by a large, battery-powered magnet beneath the train attached to a telegraph or telephone in the train operator’s cab. When activated, the telegraph lines parallel to the track gave off an equal but opposite magnetic force to the apparatus, allowing it to transmit messages.

The device revolutionized railway communication by allowing train operators and dispatchers to send Morse code to and from moving trains, have real-time conversations, and show the location of moving trains on a dispatcher’s display board.

Like many Black Americans, Woods’ transformational contributions in his field were made despite great adversity. Most notably, Thomas Edison attempted to take credit for his Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph and took him to court, but Woods won both times.

While some of his most significant inventions were railway enhancements, Woods’ career as an inventor had a transformational impact on the early telecommunications industry.

Benjamin Hooks – Telecommunications Policy Trailblazer and Civil Rights Leader

Benjamin Hooks was a civil rights leader, minister, and attorney who became the first Black FCC Commissioner in 1972 and served as the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 – 1992.

Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1925. During his youth, he was inspired to work hard in his studies by other academics in his family. When it came time to attend college, he enrolled in LeMoyne-Owen College, where he became acutely aware of the injustices in the segregated South.

After finishing his college education at Howard University in 1944, he joined the Army, where he was tasked with guarding Italian prisoners of war. Guarding Italian prisoners who were allowed in restaurants where he was barred was both humiliating to Hooks and further inspired him to advocate for racial justice.

After the war, Hooks enrolled at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago and graduated in 1948. Upon graduating, he immediately returned to Memphis where he committed himself to fighting the practice of racial segregation. He progressed from being one of the few black lawyers in Memphis to becoming the first Black criminal court judge in Tennessee’s history. He also became a prominent Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon appointed Hooks to be one of five FCC Commissioners, making him the first Black commissioner in U.S. history.

At the FCC, Hooks continued his life’s work of pursuing racial justice.

When he arrived, only 2 of the 2,200 FCC employees were Black. When he departed, he had helped grow that number to over 70.

Hooks also advocated for the inclusion of minorities across the American broadcast industry and worked to address the lack of minority ownership in television and radio stations. During his tenure at the Commission, minority employment in broadcasting rose from three to 15 percent nationally.

Following the end of his term on the FCC in 1978, Hooks continued his work advocating for Black involvement in the entertainment industry. Two years prior to the completion of his term, he was elected to serve as the executive director of the NAACP, a position he held until 1992.

Hooks was a trailblazer for Black Americans in telecommunications policy and a strong advocate for their advancement in the broadcast industry. While his work in telecommunications was significant, it represents only a small part of a life dedicated to advancing civil rights and racial justice.

Black Americans in Telecommunications and Tech

Granville Woods and Benjamin Hooks exemplify the historic contributions of Black Americans to the success and advancement of the telecommunications industry. To learn more about other noteworthy Black Americans whose life and work have helped shape the history of telecom and tech in America, check out WIA’s list of 20 Notable Black Americans in Telecom and Tech.