Given the history of African-Americans, it is not surprising that many historically noted black folks are so because they were a first. First back person to do this, first black person to do that. Some of these seem like impressive feats, either because the feat in general is impressive (going into space) or because the resistance faced was notably difficult (school desegregation). Here are a few examples with dates:
President of The United States (2009), Supreme Court Justice (1967), PhD from an American University (1876), Major League Baseball (1844, 1947), Surgeon General (1993), Astronaut (1983)
The good news is that the firsts seem to be getting worse. Trust me I know. Certain family members of mine seem to enjoy making all the children play trivia at family gatherings. A large portion of the questions involves naming the first black person to do X. Most of the good ones are taken, even the “impossible” one, President of the United States.
Note that I said most of the good ones.
Another year of Nobel Prize announcements have come and gone. And no black scientist has yet won a Nobel prize (plenty of non-scientists have won Peace and Literature). Physics, Medicine, Chemistry. 0, 0, 0.
I tried to come up with a person who might be of the “in the running” stature. Like the kind of people listed on the Nobel predicting website (apparently people also bet on this?). My mental search for prominent black scientists reminded me of a blog post at Urban Scientist, remarking on The Root’s lack of STEM folks in their list of influential African-Americans. I wandered around the Internet, asked around, and started making my own damn list1. Forget about possible future Nobel winners, just anyone out there doing science (I'll be rather broad with my definition). Some I know from their work, others I just found on the web. I’m sure there are some notable omissions, this is just a small start…
Maydianne Andrade - Biology
Shirley Jackson – President RPI, Physics
Ursula Burns – CEO Xerox, Engineering
Kristala Prather – Chemical Engineering
Andre Fenton – Brain & Behavior
Duane Watson – Brain & Behavior
John A.W. Harkless – Chemistry
Emery Brown – Brain & Behavior
Sylvester Gates - Physics
Neil deGrasse Tyson – Physics
Ronald McNair - Astronaut
Marcus Alfred - Physics
Winston Thompson - Medicine
Kimberly Jackson - Biochemistry(Spellman)
Julie Washington - Brain & Behavior
LaMonica Stewart - Biology
1. Standard disclaimer regarding not knowing the self identification of those listed.