Breaking Barriers: Five Black Heroes in Critical Fields

By: Aly Pickett

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s essential to recognize and honor the contributions of Black individuals who’ve made enduring marks on the world. The mission critical communications field is filled with remarkable Black history makers whose stories deserve amplification and commemoration. Today we’re paying tribute to five of these outstanding figures who stand at the intersection of Black history and critical industries Zetron serves.

1. America’s First Paramedics – Freedom House Ambulance Service

In the early 1960s, the Freedom House Ambulance Service emerged as the first paramedics, revolutionizing emergency medical services. This groundbreaking initiative, initiated by Dr. Peter Safar, saw 25 black men from Pittsburgh’s ‘Hill District’ undergo extensive medical training.

Upon completion of the 32-week, 300-hour course, the men began operations in 1968 with two ambulances. It was a great success. One study in 1972 found that the paramedics delivered the correct care to critical patients 89% of the time. By contrast, police and volunteer ambulance services delivered the right care only 38% and 13% of the time, respectively.

Despite their success, the mayor of Pittsburgh shut the program down in 1975. Learn more about these incredible Black men who paved the way for the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) we rely on today here.

2. America’s First Woman Firefighter – Molly Williams

The first recorded woman firefighter in the U.S. was Molly Williams, a Black woman and a slave in the early 1800s in New York City. Molly worked for the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in Manhattan and was typically referred to as Volunteer Number 11 when she worked there.

Molly is remembered particularly for the incredible work she did during the blizzard of 1818. There was a cholera outbreak around that time creating labor shortage, so Molly took one of the men’s places on the dragropes and pulled the pumper through deep snow during the blizzard.

New York City did not have another female firefighter for another 146 years after Molly. It’s critical to remember stories like Molly’s during Black History Month. Discover more about Molly’s extraordinary journey here.

3. Shaping the Electricity Industry – Lewis Latimer

While Edison’s name may be on the patent for the practical incandescent light bulb, Latimer wrote the book about it, ‘Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.’ He worked closely with historical inventors like Edison and Alexander Graham Bell and was hired to draft the necessary drawing for Bell to patent his famous telephone.

In 1880, Latimer began working for Edison’s rival, Hiram S. Maxim, at the United States Electric Lighting Company. While working there he invented and patented a new process for making carbon filament lightbulbs and then went on to help install broad-scale lighting systems for major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London.

Delve further into Latimer’s influential career here.

4. First Black Keeper in the Life-Saving Service – Richard Etheridge

When Charles F. Shoemaker, Assistant Inspector of the Life-Saving Service (now the U.S. Coast Guard), recommended Richard Etheridge for a job, he described Etheridge as ‘strong, robust and intelligent.’ Even more notably, he was one of the best surfman on the part of the coast that they protected.

Once appointed as the first Black Keeper in the Life-Saving Service, Richard Etheridge demonstrated unparalleled commitment to rigorous training and efficiency. So much so that Etheridge and his team’s courageous rescue during a storm in 1896 earned them the Gold Life-Saving Medal.

Many years later, when the Life-Saving Service had been renamed the U.S. Coast Guard, Etheridge and his team of Black surfmen were honored with a Coast Guard Cutter named Pea Island, commissioned in their memory.

Learn more about Etheridge and other Black history makers in the U.S. Coast Guard here.

5. Pioneers for Park Rangers Across America – Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers

Before the concept of ‘Park Rangers’ fully materialized and before the establishment of the National Parks service, the Buffalo Soldiers protected Yosemite. Comprising four ‘African American’ units formed after the Civil War, these soldiers played a vital role in maintaining and safeguarding the national park from threats like wildlife poachers and illegal logging, among other things.

Beyond their role of protectors, these incredible men helped cut new trails and established key roadways. Still on the heels of the Civil War at the time, the soldier’s dedication and service is even more commendable as we look back.

Learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers from a Ranger actively working in Yosemite today, Shelton Johnson.

As we reflect on these stories during Black History Month, it is crucial to acknowledge and celebrate the remarkable individuals who paved the way for advancements across these critical industries. Their resilience, innovation and unwavering dedication have left a lasting mark on history. Let us honor their legacies and continue striving for a future marked by inclusion, equity and progress.

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