2 Hero Spotlights in Honor of Black History Month

Here at CARD we believe in the fight for racial justice and in using our platform to amplify marginalized voices. 

We license card artwork from brands and artists all over the US, and we strive to represent as many interests and communities as we can. This month our card gallery features a collection of artwork celebrating black visual artists. Music fans can choose from card images of legendary African American artists Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday and Eartha Kitt.   

Keep in mind that the push towards racial equity and justice should be a year-round endeavor in the fintech industry – and every industry. 

What Black History Month does is provide us with an annual opportunity to open a new discussion about African American excellence and its contributions to all areas of American life. 

This February is as much about celebrating African American history as it is an opportunity for us all to put in some work to understand what it means to be Black in America today. 

According to Pew Research, 46.8 million people in the US racially and ethnically self-identify as “black.” But just like the African continent (which is often misrepresented as culturally and ethnically homogeneous) black Americans are diverse.  

*Although this article uses the terms “Black” and “African American” interchangeably in context, it is certainly worth noting that not all Black people in the US identify as African American

In fact, between 2001 and 2019 the number of Black Americans who also identify with one or more other races increased by 6%. Overall, 2.4 million Americans identify as Black and Hispanic (also sometimes termed Afro Latinx). Another 3.7 million identify as Black and another (non-Hispanic) race. 

According to the McKinsey firm’s research, as of 2021 there is a 30% wage gap between white and Black Americans. This difference of about $10,000 in salary is a complex problem and doesn’t have just one cause or solution. It traces back over decades of systemic social and economic discrimination against African Americans. 

A 2019 FDIC survey found that 14% of African American are unbanked (meaning they don’t have any type of account with a bank or credit union). This number is shockingly higher than the total national rate of unbanked Americans which sits at only 5.4%

In the face of these facts you may be wondering – what is my part in all this?  

The best and easiest thing to do as a non-Black person during Black History Month is to listen and learn! Let African American voices and stories take up space in your life, and do more research on what inspires you. 

In the spirit of the celebration, CARD put together a few African American Hero stories (just to scratch the surface). Read on for a bit of history and a spotlight on today’s Black excellence in fintech…. 

How the celebration came to be

Black History Month was first imagined by African American historian Carter G. Woodson

Born to formerly enslaved parents, Woodson was the second African American man (after W.E.B. Du Bois) to ever receive a PhD from Harvard University. 

In 1915 Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) – now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). 

After witnessing the 50th anniversary celebration of emancipation in Chicago, Woodson became determined to carve out a space for Black History on the national stage. He wanted a weeklong event that could encourage public schools to have a focus on Black history and honor Black heritage. 

Most of all, Woodson wanted to pass down to future generations a time of reflection, recognition and celebration of African American accomplishments. 

In 1926, Woodson and his colleges at ASALH deemed the second week of February “Negro History Week.”  

Why February?

There is a reason why February (notably the shortest month of the year) was chosen to commemorate African American history. 

Woodson chose this month because it aligned with the birthdays of both former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Consequently, February was already the time of year that African Americans traditionally celebrated emancipation from slavery.    

By the late 1960’s (in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance) this celebration of Black heritage only grew in popularity. Over the decades it began to overflow into the entire month of February.

However, It wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford finally recognized the month-long version and added it to the nation’s calendar. 

You may not know that every year the ASALH designates a new special theme for the month. This year is themed Black Health and Wellness in honor of Black healthcare history and in support of today’s Black healthcare heroes.

African American Hero Spotlight:
Undercover Inventor Lewis H. Latimer

In grade school everyone learns about how Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb and Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone. But what we weren’t taught is that no one succeeds in a vacuum. 

These hallmark 20th century inventions made modern life and economies possible, and they owe everything to little-known African American innovator Lewis Howard Latimer.  

Lewis H. Latimer in 1882

Born at the forefront of freedom

Lewis’ parents George and Rebecca Latimer quite literally risked it all to give their children a better future. Together they escaped slavery in Virginia and fled to Boston, Massachusetts in 1842. 

Right after the couple arrived in Boston, George was outed as a fugitive slave and jailed under threat of being sent back to the Virginia plantation. 

After George’s arrest, the Black community in Boston rallied around his case. At his trial George was defended by two of the most famous abolitionists of all time, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison

But despite all the public support and outcry, the trial judge ruled that George was still the ‘property’ of the Virginia slave owner. He only became a free man after a local African American minister paid $400 for his freedom as a last resort. 

Although he was now technically free, George was left to support his family’s four children with no money and limited job prospects as a Black man. 

A self-made man

Lewis Latimer was the youngest child, and although he was very intelligent and loved to read and draw, he spent most of his childhood working with his father. 

In 1864 when Latimer was only 16 years old, he lied about his age to enroll in the Navy and fight for the Union in the Civil War. He returned to Boston in 1868 with an honorable discharge and snagged a job as an office boy at the Crosby and Gould patent law firm. 

This particular firm specialized in helping inventors secure patents for their designs. Here young Lewis was exposed to the “golden age” of American invention. 

Before computers there were “draftsmen,” artists who produced detailed mechanical drawings, blueprints of inventions. They did this by hand, in ink, and it was considered a highly skilled and valuable profession at the time. 

Latimer, of course, began to teach himself mechanical drawing by closely observing the draftsmen at work and studying in his off-time.

After only a few months of work he asked the firm for a chance to show off his skills. They recognized Lewis’ obvious talent and promoted him to draftsman. His weekly pay increased from $3.00 to $20.00. 

Helping Bell Win the Race

Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell while working at Crosby and Gould and was instrumental in Bell’s success. 

When they met, Bell was beginning an epic race. He wanted to be the first inventor to file a patent for the telephone before any contemporaries submitted a similar design. 

Latimer had developed unrivaled expertise in both mechanical drawing and patent filing law and Bell hired him to help get the job done. 

Latimer stayed up late nights working with Bell for weeks. It was Latimer’s hand drawn blueprints and Latimer’s specific knowledge of patent filing that won Bell the race.

On February 14, 1876 Bell and Latimer filed the patent just hours before a rival. 

Improving the lightbulb

With Bell’s telephone safely patented, Latimer went to work for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, NY. Electrical engineering was the newest inventing frontier and competition for patents was intense.

At his new job Latimer quickly became a master of both electrical engineering and patent infringement protection. As a result, he was invited to go work for the famous Thomas Edison. 

Latimer was critical to Edison’s success as both an engineer and as his patent investigator, tirelessly protecting Edison’s work from competitors and cementing his legacy.  

Edison successfully filed the patent for the lightbulb in 1880, but his version of the filament (made of carbonized bamboo) burned out quickly and easily.

A year and a half later in 1881 (with Edison’s support) Latimer filed his own patent for a new carbon filament encased in cardboard that lasted longer and was more efficient to manufacture. 

Edison's patented lighbulb
Photo by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

No light without Latimer

Latimer’s essential contributions to two of the most important American inventions of all time have been largely lost to history. 

It’s not a coincidence that he as a Black man did not get the same recognition as the famous white inventors he worked alongside as an intellectual equal. 

For decades American public knowledge has purposely excluded tales of the labor and ingenuity of African Americans that formed our country and its economy. 

In 2022 we know that Latimer’s story (and many others) belong in the history books. 

African American Hero Spotlight:
Roshawnna Novellus and EnrichHER

History is important, but so are the amazing things that Black Americans are doing today! 

In the world of fintech, there are lots of amazing African American leaders creating awesome products while fighting for equity and inclusion. It seems a bit unfair that they have to be doing both at the same time, doesn’t it? 

A lot of them are incredible women, one of whom is Roshawnna Novellus. She founded a Fintech platform called EnrichHer in 2014 that has since helped provide over $14 million in capital to women of color owned businesses across the US. 

Got it from her mama

Roshawnna Novellus grew up with her mother who worked both as a teacher and a part-time entrepreneur.

When Novellus was twelve years old her mom began bringing her along to investment meetings at the high school where she taught. 

Novellus learned early on from her mother that economic knowledge and resources were harder to come by as a Black American – and sometimes even harder to come by as a female American. 

This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s reality. According to the Harvard Business Review, women-led startups received just 2.3% of venture capital funding in 2020. 

In fact, less than 8% of all national venture capital funding goes to companies with women-led founders. For women of color the number drops below 1%. 

EnrichHer: Filling in the gaps

After moving to Atlanta and starting her consulting career in the tech landscape, Novellus saw tons of opportunities for entrepreneurial growth. 

But what she quickly observed is that women-led businesses did not have the same access to capital as their male counterparts. 

There was not only loan bias, but also information asymmetry when it came to women collecting knowledge about loans and financing options. 

So, Novellus (who has a Masters in IT and a PhD in systems engineering) created EnrichHer. It’s a fintech platform that connects women and/or person-of-color founded companies to a variety of funding sources (both institutional and private investors). 

EnrichHer not only matches startups to sources of capital, but also provides coaching, grant resources, and even a new dating service for business creatives!  

In an interview with TheTechPanda, Novellus is quoted as saying:

“I strongly believe that for society to change, access to resources must change. Diversification of business ownership is part of the solution. Business owners are the brokers of goods into the community, and they influence politics and legislation.” 

Recap

Phew, that was a lot of information! But the truth is that these stories only scratch the surface of unsung African American heroes of the past and present. 

From Lewis Latimer to Roshawnna Novellus, now is the time for African American stories to live at the forefront of our minds. 

Looking for other ethical ways to celebrate Black History Month?

🎓 Like we mentioned before, the easiest thing we can do to show support is to keep on learning! The reality is that basic tenants of African American history like slavery, the civil war, reconstruction, and Jim Crowe are taught poorly in American schools. Bringing facts and history to the mainstream is a great way to honor Black history. 

🏤 Get to know your community better while supporting Black-owned business! Here is a list of eight different directories and apps that can lead you to your local Black-owned small businesses. 

💸 If you’re considering donating money make sure to do your research. Sometimes the best way to donate isn’t the easiest – make sure your money is going to work the way you want it to! Here is a Vox guide to picking an effective charity. 

From the CARD family to yours, happy Black History Month♥️

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