Recognizing that American history is Black history, WIA is highlighting notable African Americans who contributed to the telecommunications and technology sectors. While some of these notable people were at the forefront of the industry like Jesse Russell, whose innovations fundamentally changed the wireless industry, others are making vibrant contributions today, like Mignon Clyburn, who was committed to closing the digital divide as an FCC commissioner and chair.
Special thanks to WIA’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) expert Dr. Ronald Johnson, Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist, Diversity and Inclusion, who compiled this list.
If you have someone you think should be included in this list, please reach out to Tracy.Ford@wia.org.
The Honorable Mignon Clyburn
Federal Communications Commission Pioneer
Mignon Clyburn was sworn in for her first term as an FCC commissioner on August 3, 2009; sworn in for a second term on February 19, 2013; and served until June 6, 2018. She also served as Acting FCC Chairwoman from May 20, 2013, through November 4, 2013. While at the FCC, Commissioner Clyburn was committed to closing the digital divide. Specifically, she was an advocate for Lifeline Modernization, which helped low-income consumers defray the cost of broadband service, championed diversity in media ownership, initiated Inmate Calling Services reforms, emphasized diversity and inclusion in STEM opportunities, and fought to preserve a free and open internet. She has pushed for media ownership rules that reflect the demographics of America, affordable universal telephone and high-speed internet access, greater broadband deployment and adoption throughout the nation, and transparency in regulation.
Prior to the FCC, Clyburn spent 11 years as a member of the sixth district on the Public Service Commission (PSC) of South Carolina. Prior to the PSC, Clyburn was the publisher and general manager of her family-founded newspaper for 14 years, the Coastal Times, a Charleston-based weekly newspaper that focused primarily on issues affecting the African American community.
Prior to her appointment at the FCC, Clyburn served on the South Carolina State Energy Advisory Council, the Trident Technical College Foundation, the South Carolina Cancer Center Board, the Columbia College Board of Visitors, the Palmetto Project Board (as secretary/ treasurer), chair of the YWCA of Greater Charleston and on the boards of Reid House of Christian Service, Edventure Children’s Museum, Trident Urban League, and the Trident United Way. She also is a Life Member of the NAACP, a member of The Links, Inc. and the SC Advisory Council of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Clyburn is currently the principal at MLC Strategies, LLC, and member of several boards of directors, including most recently the University of the District of Columbia (HBCUs). In November 2020, Clyburn was appointed by President Joe Biden to his four-person senior transition team, specifically to lead the review of the Federal Communications Commission.
Ralph B. Everett, Esquire
Pioneer of Senate Black Staff Directors
In 1982, Ralph Everett became the first African American to head a U.S. Senate committee as Staff Director and Minority Chief Counsel of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In 1986, Everett was named Staff Director and Chief Counsel of the full committee and blazed a pathway for future aspiring African Americans to serve in key committee staff positions. In this position, he played a significant role in major impactful legislation including cable, broadcast and common carrier legislation, and regulatory reform of the airline, truck, rail and bus industries.
Everett is recognized and relied upon as a treasure-trove of historical perspectives and international experiences in the telecommunication industry. President Clinton appointed Everett as U.S. Ambassador to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis, and later that year he was appointed to head the U.S. delegation to the ITU’s Second World Telecommunication Development Conference in Malta, where he was elected Vice Chairman of the conference attended by representatives from more than 190 nations.
A champion for greater diversity, equity and inclusion, Everett served for several years as the transformative President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. A former partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, a leading international law firm with offices throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, Everett was the first African American to receive a partnership at the prestigious firm, and later became Managing Partner of its Washington, D.C., office.
Everett, a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina, is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College (HBCUs), and the Duke University Law School, where he received his juris doctor degree as an Earl Warren Scholar. He currently serves as member of the Board of Visitors.
Dennis L. Via
United States Army 4-Star General
In 2012, President Barack Obama nominated Via to 4-star general, only the second Signal Corps officer and first African American to achieve full general rank in the Signal Corps. During his 36-year military career, he commanded all levels from captain to general, including several years as commanding general and deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Material Command. Before that, he held multiple commands, signal and chief information officer roles, working on everything from communications infrastructure and cyber security to global logistics.
General Via was born in 1958 in the industrial town of Martinsville, Virginia, the son of Henry Via, a house painter and small-contract repairman, and Margaret Via, a homemaker. He had worked in a local textile mill and intended to skip college and become a building contractor until a high-school teacher who taught him masonry convinced him to enroll at his alma mater, Virginia State University, an HBCUs in Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 1882. At the end of his sophomore year, Via entered Army ROTC training and in 1980 graduated as a distinguished cadet with an officer’s commission. Later, Via would become its first graduate to achieve 4-Star General rank and is one of 13 alumni to achieve flag officer status.
Via’s first assignment was as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps commanding troops as a platoon leader at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Via rose to commander of the 3rd Signal Brigade and held staff positions at the battalion level at posts in the United States, Europe and Southwest Asia. He earned a master’s degree in management at Boston University, then graduated from the United States Army Command and General Staff College in 1991, and the United States Army War College in 1999.
In 2002, Via relinquished command of the 3rd Signal Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas, to take a desk job in Washington, D.C., but his most significant assignment was as the 18th Commander of Army Materiel Command, from 2012 to 2016, headquartered in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. In this assignment, Via supervised a command with a presence in every state and 144 countries, employing more than 140,000 soldiers and civilians, with a $50 billion budget. One of his major achievements was founding the United States Strategic Command’s Joint Task Force Global, the nation’s cybersecurity defense organization.
As a military educator, Via contributed numerous articles on his fields of expertise in such publications as Army Magazine, Army Communicator, and Army Times. In 1999 he authored The Division G6: Strategic Signal Leadership for Information Superiority in the Army After Next, a 45-page report published by the U.S. War College.
A member of the Council of Foreign Relations, Sigma Pi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities, Via ended his 36-year military career in October 2016, retiring to his home in Woodbridge, Va.
Digital Cellular Technology Pioneer
As a top honor student at Tennessee State University in the School of Engineering, Jesse Russell became the first African American to be hired directly from a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) institution by AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1973, Russell obtained his Master of Electrical Engineering (MSEE) degree from Stanford University. Russell has helped to shape the wireless communications industry direction through his leadership and perspectives for standards, technologies as well as new wireless service concepts. His innovations in wireless communication systems, architectures and technology related to radio access networks, end-user devices and in-building wireless communications systems have fundamentally changed the wireless communications industry. He pioneered the field of digital cellular communications in the 1980s through the use of high-power linear amplification and low bit-rate voice encoding technologies and received a patent in 1992 (US patent #5,084,869) for his work in the area of digital cellular base station design.
Otis F. Boykin’s work on improved electrical resistors made possible the steady workings of a variety of now-ubiquitous electronic devices. Variations of his resistor models are used around the world today in televisions, computers, and radios. Most notably, however, his work enabled control functions for the first successful, implantable pacemaker. Boykin earned his first patent in 1959 for a wire precision resistor, which allowed for the designation of a precise amount of resistance for a specific purpose. The advances incorporated into Boykin’s resistor meant that many electronic devices, including consumer goods and military equipment, could be made more cheaply and with greater reliability than provided by earlier options. His resistor was quickly incorporated into a number of products, including guided missiles and IBM computers, in the United States and overseas. In addition, a version of his resistor made possible the precise regulation necessary for the success of the pacemaker, which has helped to save and lengthen the lives of thousands of men and women around the world.
Source: Lemelson MIT
Railroad Communications Inventor
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on April 23, 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to the railroad industry. To some, he was known as the “Black Edison,” both great inventors of their time. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and much more for controlling the flow of electricity. His most noted invention was a system for letting the engineer of a train know how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.
Woods literally learned his skills on the job. Attending school in Columbus until age 10, he served an apprenticeship in a machine shop and learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith. His experiences later led him to settle in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became the person most responsible for modernizing the railroad. Among other achievements, in 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains. Woods’ invention made it possible for trains to communicate with the station and with other trains so they knew exactly where they were at all times. Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to Woods’ “telegraphony,” enabling him to become a full-time inventor.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Inventor of the home security system and first closed-circuit TV
Marie Van Brittan Brown was the inventor of the first home security system. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television. The patent for the home security system invention was filed in 1966, and it later influenced modern home security systems that are still used today. Brown’s security system was the basis for the two-way communication and surveillance features of modern security. Her original invention was composed of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. The final element was an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police immediately. Three peepholes were placed on the front door at different height levels. The top one was for tall persons, the bottom one was for children, and the middle one was for anyone of average height. At the opposite side of the door a camera was attached with the ability to slide up and down to allow the person to see through each peephole. The camera picked up images that would reflect on the monitor via a wireless system. The monitor could be placed in any part of the house to allow you to see who was at the door. There was also a voice component to enable Brown to speak to the person outside. If the person was perceived to be an intruder, the police would be notified with the push of a button. If the person was a welcome or expected visitor, the door could be unlocked via remote control.
James Edward Maceo West
James Edward Maceo West is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He holds 250 patents and developed the electret microphone that is now used in almost all current microphones, including cell phones. West attended Temple University before working for Bell Labs. Along with Gerhard M. Sessler, he developed the foil electret microphone, an inexpensive, compact device that is now used in 90 percent of all contemporary microphones. A prolific writer as well, West has more than 250 patents and became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Both West and Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. West has also worked with initiatives to entreat women and students of color to explore and pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.
Roy L. Clay
The Godfather of Black Silicon Valley
Helped to launch Hewlett-Packard’s computer division
After receiving a degree in Mathematics from St. Louis University in 1951, Roy Clay’s first job was as a schoolteacher. Back then, teaching school was about the best job that African Americans could reasonably hope to find in the U.S. In 1965, after an intense day-and-a-half interview with Hewlett-Packard, Clay landed a position as the software development manager and lead developer for the HP 2116A minicomputer, which was the first computer sold by HP and only the second 16-bit computer to enter the world market. While there, Clay worked tirelessly to make the software ready for the market as quickly as the hardware, which defied the industry convention at the time. He also went on to become the first director of the HP Research and Development Computer Group, a relentless promoter for the development of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division, and the interim General Manager of HP’s computer division following the departure of Tom Perkins, who went on to co-found the iconic venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Principal inventor of the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph used during Apollo 16’s lunar landing
Scientist George Carruthers built his first telescope at the age of 10. He earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Illinois in 1964 and began working at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. His telescope and image converter was used to identify molecular hydrogen in space and his ultraviolet camera/spectograph was used by Apollo 16 during the flight to the moon. For the first time, scientists were able to examine the Earth’s atmosphere for concentrations of pollutants, and see UV images of more than 550 stars, nebulae and galaxies. Carruthers was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his work on the project.
Led the development of the Fairchild Channel F Console, which used swappable game cartridges rather than ROM storage
Jerry Lawson pioneered home video gaming in the 1970s by helping create the Fairchild Channel F, the first home video game system with interchangeable games. A New York native, Lawson is one of the few African American engineers who worked in computing at the dawn of the video game era. Though basic by today’s standards, Lawson’s work allowed people to play a variety of games in their homes and paved the way for systems such as the Atatri 2600, Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation.
Patented a 3-D Illusion Transmitter used by NASA. Doctors also use it for medical imaging, and in 3-D television.
Valerie Thomas was only one of two women in her class at HBCU’s Morgan State University to major in physics. She was an excellent student, and soon she had acquired the knowledge of mathematics that led her to a position as a mathematical/data analyst for NASA. Eventually Thomas moved up within NASA and served in a position of managing the development of NASA’s image-processing systems for “Landsat,” the first satellite to send multi-spectral images to study the Earth’s resources from outer space. In 1980, she received a patent for her illusion transmitter, which uses a concave mirror on the transmitting end as well as on the receiving end to produce optical illusion images. NASA uses the technology today, and scientists are currently working on ways to incorporate it into tools for surgeons to look inside the human body, as well as for television sets and video screens.
Thomas continued to work for NASA until her retirement in 1995, serving in such positions as Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) project manager and most recently associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.
Source: Lemelson MIT
Janet Emerson Bashen
First African American woman to hold a patent for a software invention
Janet Emerson Bashen (born February 12, 1957) is an American inventor and entrepreneur and the first African American woman to hold a patent for a software invention. The patented software, LinkLine, is a web-based application for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claims intake and tracking, claims management, and document management. Bashen has been inducted into the Black Inventors Hall of Fame and is the recipient of numerous awards for her business and technological achievements. Bashen is a graduate of HBCUs Alabama A&M University.
1998 History Makers
The only time in U.S. history that African Americans were in charge of all communication policy
From left to right—Larry Irving, Assistant Secretary and head of NTIA; William Kennard, Chair of FCC; Robert Mallett, Deputy Secretary of Commerce; Vice President Al Gore; Ralph Everett, U.S. Ambassador and head of U.S. Delegation to ITU Second World Telecommunications Development Conference; Vonya McCann, Ambassador and U.S. Coordinator, U.S. Department of State; Ambassador George Moose, Ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva.
FCC Commissioners and Chairmen
Thank you to the Multicultural Media Telecommunications & Internet Council for their work on recognizing other notable African Americans serving at the FCC.
Hon. Geoffrey Starks has served as an FCC Commissioner since 2019. Starks is a champion for the millions of Americans who lack access to or cannot afford a home internet connection. He advocates for consumer protection and accountability, particularly in managing the Universal Service Fund. Also, he is a leader on national security policy, working to eliminate untrustworthy equipment from America’s communications networks. Prior to his federal public service, Starks was an attorney at Williams & Connolly. Learn more here.
Hon. Michael Powell, President of the NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, served as the FCC Chairman from 2001 to 2005 and a Commissioner from 1997 to 2001. During his FCC tenure, he oversaw the rapid transformation of communications markets into the Digital Age. As a result, the Internet came into widespread commercial use, as did smart phones, Wi-Fi networks and satellite radio. Prior to joining the FCC, he worked as the Chief of Staff of the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice. Learn more here.
Hon. William Kennard, the chairman of AT&T’s board of directors, served as the FCC Chairman from 1997 to 2001. During Kennard’s tenure, he shaped policies that created an explosion of new wireless phones, brought the Internet to a majority of American households, and resulted in a significant investment in new broadband technologies. He also implemented new policies to bridge the digital divide in the United States and around the world. He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 2009 to 2013. Learn more here.