African-American Railroader Month

Firsts in History

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Life Saving and Rescue

Life Saving Service

African Americans employed by the Life Saving Service were experienced fishermen and oystermen who had lived along the Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina coasts. They were well-trained to handle boats and were knowledgeable of surf and sea. These experienced seamen cooked, patrolled the beach, and participated in various duties that became integral to their work as surfmen. The primary duty of crews at Life-Saving Stations was to aid ships in distress. African Americans saved many lives and preserved property in so doing.

Pea Island Lifesaving Station

From 1880 until World Ward II the Pea Island Station was the only all-black station in the history of the U.S. Lifesaving Service and its successor, the U.S. Coast Guard.

Established on Hatteras Island in the winter of 1878-79, the Pea Island station was originally manned by an all-white crew which failed to keep a proper lookout when a British bark went aground a short distance from the station. Nineteen sailors drowned attempting to swim to shore through a frenzy of wind and seething waves.

Soon afterward the negligent crew was replaced by what was then described as a “colored” crew. Until that time the Pea Island station has only hired black personnel to maintain the horses, stables, corrals, and boat trailers.

The new officer in charge was Richard Etheridge, the first and only African American station keeper. He was a former slave and a Civil War veteran, reported to be “one of the best surfmen” North Carolina ever saw.

Etheridge and his crew compiled an extraordinary record of rescues. From November 30, 1879 through January 20, 1915, 10 vessels were wrecked off the Pea Island coast. More than 600 persons were rescued from these vessels. Only 10 lives were lost. Given an opportunity to prove themselves, the black crew at Pea Island distinguished themselves with an exceptional esprit de corps that existed until closure of the station in 1947.

The crew of Pea Island Lifesaving Station was posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for saving the lives of nine persons aboard a sinking ship almost a century ago.

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Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has served in every war from the American Revolution through the Persian Gulf Conflict. During World War I, 15 Coast Guard cutters, some 200 officers and 5,000 enlisted men went into action as part of the U.S. Navy. By World War II, the Coast Guard had 802 vessels, and its personnel manned 351 Navy and 288 Army craft.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that African Americans would be integrated into the general ranks of the Coast Guard and Navy in capacities other than messmen. In June 1943, the USS Sea Cloud was the first U.S. warship that was fully integrated – an experiment conducted during World War II to determine the feasibility of integrating crews. Although the Sea Cloud was decommissioned in November 1944, its year of operation demonstrated that no racial incidents occurred and that the integrated crew was in every way as efficient as any other. The experiment paved the way for other African Americans to serve in crews not completely segregated.

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Garrett Augustus Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan was an African American businessman and inventor whose curiosity and innovation let to the development of many useful and helpful products. Morgan devoted his life to creating things that made the lives of other people safer and more convenient.

Among his inventions was an early traffic signal, that greatly improved safety on America’s streets and roadways. His traffic signal, patented in 1923, was in use for decades before being replaced by the red/yellow/green light form we know today.

Garrett Augustus Morgan was compelled to try and solve safety problems of the day. In Garrett’s hometown of Cleveland , numerous firefighters were being overcome by smoke in their attempt to put out fires. Morgan obtained a patent on October 13, 1914 for his breathing device or ‘safety helmet’ as he called it. Fire departments across the country began to purchase the breathing device. Morgan also won numerous medals, which helped him sell the invention.

Refined versions of this breathing device have served important roles in military combat. When it was disclosed that the inventor of the gas mask was African-American, public acceptance was affected. Nevertheless, it was used by the U.S. Army during World War I to protect the soldiers from chlorine gas fumes and saved hundreds of American soldiers.

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Charles R. Drew

Charles R. Drew was a renowned surgeon, teacher, and researcher. He was responsible for founding two of the world's largest blood banks. Because of his research into the storage and shipment of blood plasma—blood without cells—he is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Britains during World War II. He was director of the first American Red Cross effort to collect and bank blood on a large scale. In 1942, a year after he was made a diplomat of surgery by the American Board of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University, he became the first African American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the board.

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