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Celebrating Black culture and innovation at TTS: Black ingenuity and talent

Members of TTS' Black employee affinity group share reflections that inspire more equitable workplaces and communities year-round.

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Black and African American technologists shape every definition of innovation. During Black History Month, the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) celebrated Black and African American innovators in our program and our country.

But Black History Month can’t be limited to a single month. Every day, we have the opportunity and responsibility to feature Black voices and Black achievements. These successes have been made despite the pressures, violence, and traumas that Blacks communities have faced—and continue to face.

In his message to TTS employees, Executive Director Dave Zvenyach said, “the achievements of Black Americans rarely receive the recognition they deserve and come at great personal cost. The painful contradiction is that Black history is one of greatness achieved in the face of powerful opposition. Black History Month is not just a celebration of the incredible work of Black Americans, but a reminder that we all have a part in lifting up Black voices and Black achievement, and that still much work remains to be done.”

Each vignette below has been shared by a member of TTS’ Black employee affinity group and was part of our Black History Month social media campaign. We hope you enjoy them and find timeless lessons that inspire more inclusive and equitable workplaces and communities, every month of the year. Find more guidance is provided on digital.gov.

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“Let us celebrate Black Ingenuity. I’d like to shout out the work of Mobile, Alabama’s Lonnie Johnson. As an engineer with the Air Force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lonnie Johnson contributed to the development of countless high-profile projects, including the Stealth Bomber and the nuclear power source for NASA’s 1989 Galileo mission to Jupiter. But the most celebrated of Lonnie Johnson’s 120+ patents? The Super Soaker water gun! The Super Soaker was a runaway success and became one of the most popular toys of the 1990s. The man is now a billionaire, and yet he continues to innovate. ‘The Super Soaker is good. But I want to do better.’ He continues to work and innovate on solid state batteries and thermoelectric energy conversion.”

  • Patrick Kigongo, Product Manager, 18F

 

“Let's spotlight three African American playwrights who have shaped American theater and had an enduring legacy on the art form! There are so many incredibly talented Black playwrights, actors/actresses, directors, and producers, past and present, in both the U.S. and worldwide who have transformed theater into a vehicle for telling empowering, uplifting, and authentic stories about Black people. Here's three to know:

  • August Wilson: This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright wrote 10 plays, collectively known as ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle,’ chronicling the dynamic, complex experiences and heritage of African Americans in the 20th century.
  • Lorraine Hansberry: This Chicago native was the first African-American female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway. That play, A Raisin in the Sun, is her best known work and debuted when she was only 29 years old! The play highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago.
  • Suzan Lori-Parks: A writer of stage plays, screenplays, teleplays, and a book, Suzan is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog.”
  • Malaika Carpenter, Content Strategist, 18F



 

“ To celebrate Black History Month at TTS I'm here to feature two of the first Black women to record the blues — Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey. On February 14, 1920, Mamie Smith made history as the first Black woman in the USA to sing on a musical recording. Despite threats and pressure against recording Black musicians, she ushered in an era of massive popularity for Black women and Black people in music. Her massive hit song, "Crazy Blues," sold a million copies that year. The music industry coined the term "race records" to describe Black artists' records and marketed them directly to African Americans, although they had widespread popularity.

While she wasn't the first Black woman to record the blues, Ma Rainey is the "Mother of Blues" and one of the most famous and successful Black artists of her time. Notably, she wrote and arranged many of her songs instead of relying on songwriters and bandleaders. She broke ground with her lyrics about being with women. She went on tours where she wore beaded gowns on stage with an ostrich feather in one and a gun in the other. The Netflix film, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is a fun introduction to her life, starring Viola Davis in a film adaptation of an August Wilson play.”

  • Princess Ojiaku,  Content Strategist , 18F



 

“More often than not, Black voices have been silenced and therefore the history of my people can be easily dismissed and forgotten. However, it has been Black literary greats who dared to put pen to pad to share our stories and record our history. I would like to highlight a few who educated me about my history when it wasn't taught in school and lifted me up by telling Black stories when I often felt left out by the color of my skin:

Fredrick Douglass, an abolitionist who wrote three autobiographies whose greater purpose was to attack and to contribute to the abolition of slavery in the United States, and to argue for the full inclusion of Black Americans into the nation. 

Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She battled sexism, racism, and violence. As a skilled writer, Wells-Barnett used her skills as a journalist to shed light on the conditions of African Americans throughout the South. 

James Baldwin, an American essayist, novelist, and playwright whose eloquence and passion on the subject of race in the U.S. made him an important voice in the United States and, later, through much of western Europe.

Zora Neal Hurston, a world-renowned writer whose novels, short stories, and plays often depicted African American life. Her work in anthropology examined Black folklore.

Maya Angelou, a great American poet and novelist who is renowned for her series of six autobiographies, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which was nominated for a National Book Award and is considered her magnum opus.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an essayist, journalist, and writer who speaks truth to power through his writings. His book Between the World and Me (2015) won the National Book Award for nonfiction.”

  • Brittney Chappell, Director, Office of Acquisitions



 

“Let's celebrate visionaries and change agents like the late Frank C. Carr, the founder of INROADS. Inspired by the legendary ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, founder Frank C. Carr began INROADS to eliminate career barriers to corporate opportunities for people of color. Recently, INROADS won a GSA FAS Multiple Award Schedule Contract to bring diverse, underrepresented talent into the public sector. INROADS is one organization actively doing the work of diversity, equity and inclusion by partnering with federal and corporate partners to train future business and community leaders from underserved communities and helping them develop the tools to succeed.”

  • Neichole Linhorst, Program Operations Specialist, TTS Operations



 

“I’d like to introduce some and reacquaint others to a phenomenal jazz singer and the woman behind the style, image, and sound of Betty Boop. 

 

Ester Jones was a child entertainer who lived in Chicago in the 1920s. She was trained at an early age to dance, do acrobatics, and singing (which she eventually could do in several languages). According to sources Baby Esther based her act and singing style on Florence Mills and would often impersonate her.

 

During the late 1920s, Esther “Baby Esther” Jones became known for singing in a baby voice and regularly performing at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. After watching Esther’s cabaret act in 1928, white jazz singer Helen Kane adopted Jones’ singing and scatting style. Kane changed the interpolated words “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo” to “boop-oop-a-doop” while recording her hit single “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”

 

In 1930, Fleisher Studios released a caricature of Helen Kane named Betty Boop. Boop was originally drawn as a dog but was later changed to a human as she grew in popularity. Kane never publicly admitted to appropriating Esther’s singing style, but the truth was revealed when Kane filed a lawsuit against  Fleisher Studios, for using her image and singing style. Ironically, Kane claimed that Betty Boop was imitating and profiting off of her image. After two years of legal battles, it was declared that Betty Boops scatting did not originate with Kane.

 

Throughout history, white singers have gotten away with appropriating black music without legally crediting, acknowledging, or paying African American artists. So it was no surprise that Esther Jones didn’t file suit against Kane or Fleischer Studios.  She would’ve had the burden of proving her case against a white man and white woman. When Jones was called to testify during the trial, she declined and chose to travel across Europe and Brazil where she was very popular.

 

Esther was chosen to represent African Americans and the United States of America during a European tour with Josephine Hall.  She went on to do a six week engagement at the Winter Garden, Berlin’s finest vaudeville house. When she came back to the US in 1933, she danced for Cab Calloway and toured the vaudeville circuit. 

Esther “Baby Esther” Jones died in 1934. She was a young woman with a short-lived career but a long-standing legacy. She has been referred to as Betty Boop’s Black grandmother. For too long the accomplishments of black Americans have been overlooked, ignored, dismissed, and outright stolen. I feel like Esther’s story highlights the need for black history being taught and for celebrating the accomplishments of AfricanAmericans, in real time and throughout history.”

  • Shawnique Muller, Product Manager, 18F



 

“Shirley Chisholm walked so that Madam Vice President Kamala Harris could run...quite literally. In 1964, Chisholm was elected to the New York state legislature, and was the second African–American woman to serve in Albany. She spent four years as an assembly member before winning the historical Congressional seat (as she was the first African American woman elected to serve in Congress) that would lead to her representing her constituents and neighbors in New York’s 12th district for seven consecutive terms. Her campaign motto of ‘unbought and unbossed’ became the title of her autobiography. The phrase is often used as a tribute to Chisholm’s spirit and determination. 

 

Throughout her political career and her years spent as a teacher, Chisholm fought for education opportunities, food programs for school children, and charged against social injustices. She served on the Education and Labor committees and was instrumental in the founding of both the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 and the National Women’s Political Caucus the following year. 

 

In 1972, Chisholm again made history as the first African American person to run for president, when she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.”

  • Sierra Toler, Innovation and Account Specialist, login.gov



 

“Today in Black History: Black LGBTQ Icons and Advocates 

The fights for racial equality and LGBTQ equality have always gone hand-in-hand, and there’s a long history of Black queer activists leading change and fighting discrimination.
 

“As long as there have been black people, there have been black LGBTQ and same-gender-loving people,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition

Here are few dynamic individuals from past and present
 

Part I: BLAZED THE PATH(Past)

Bayard Rustin(he/him)Rustin began his career in activism when he was just a child by protesting against segregation alongside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Throughout his life Rustin was involved in countless boycotts, protests, and initiatives aimed at protecting the civil rights of all minority groups. He was an expert in non-violent resistance having studied in India with leaders of their independence movement and organized many demonstrations of his own. Rustin was an LGBTQ and civil rights activist best known for being a key adviser to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the 1963 March on Washington and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2013 for his activism. 

 

Strome DeLarverie(she/her & they/them)DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was always a performer. As a teenager, she joined the Ringling Brothers Circus where she rode jumping horses. Then from 1955 to 1969, DeLarverie toured the black theater circuit as the MC — and only drag king — of the Jewel Box Revue, the first racially integrated drag revue in North America. She worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and held a number of leadership positions in the Stonewall Veterans Association. DeLarverie also served the community as a volunteer street patrol worker, and as a result, was called the "guardian of lesbians in the Village." Beyond her LGBTQ activism, DeLarverie also organized and performed at fundraisers for women who suffered from domestic violence and their children.
 

Alvin Ailey (he/him) Ailey was a choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the most prominent dance companies globally, in 1958. His signature work, including “Cry” and “Revelations,” continue to be performed all over the world. In 2014, Ailey was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his influential work in bringing dance to underserved communities.

 

Audre Lorde(she/her)Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior," made lasting contributions in the fields of feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory through her pedagogy and writing. Among her most notable works are “Coal” (1976), “The Black Unicorn” (1978), “The Cancer Journals” (1980) and “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” (1982). “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t,” Lorde once said.
 

Barbara Jordan (she/her) Jordan, a civil rights leader and attorney, became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, the first woman and first African American elected to Congress from Texas in 1972 and the first gay women elected to Congress. Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1994 for her work as a political trailblazer. While Jordan never explicitly acknowledged her sexual orientation in public, she was open about her life partner of nearly 30 years, Nancy Earl.
 

Marsha P. Johnson(she/her) Johnson was  an outspoken transgender rights activist and is reported to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall uprising of 1969. Along with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson helped form Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political organization that provided housing and other forms of support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Manhattan. She also performed with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 through the ‘90s and was an AIDS activist with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

 

Part II:MAKING NEW INROADS(Present)

Barbara Smith(she/her)Smith was an activist, author, publisher and could be considered one of the mothers of intersectionality, which is the understanding that all of our identities impact us simultaneously in ways that are complicated and intertwined. In 1974, she co-founded the Combahee River Collective, an organization credited with developing one of the earliest definitions of intersectionality. Smith also founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first publishing company run solely by women of color and served two terms on the Albany, New York Common Council.
 

Phill Wilson (he/him)Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999, in part inspired by the death of his partner from an HIV-related illness and his own HIV diagnosis. In 2010, Wilson was appointed to President Obama's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Wilson also served as a World AIDS Summit delegate and advocated for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide additional funding to black groups so they would have the resources to educate and mobilize their community around HIV/AIDS issues. His work resulted in the "Act Against AIDS" campaign, now known as the "Let's Stop HIV Together" campaign, which promotes HIV testing, prevention and treatment.

 

Andrea Jenkins (she/her)Jenkins made history in November 2017 by becoming the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the U.S. Jenkins  was one of two openly trans people to win a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2017. She is also a published poet and an oral historian at the University of Minnesota.

Wanda Sykes (she/her) Sykes is a Comedienne, actress, and Emmy-award winning television writer and outspoken activist for marriage equality and against anti-LGBTQ bullying. She joined LGBTQ+ student advocate group GLSEN's Think B4 You Speak campaign. Recently Sykes made waves by playing one of two gay moms in an interracial relationship on Doc McStuffins, a popular Disney show. It was the first time a Disney animated series depicted a family headed by a same-gender couple.

 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors (she/her)Khan-Cullors is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network and wrote a much-discussed essay for Esquire about what marriage meant for her as a queer Black woman. "Together, we could challenge marriage as a white, heteronormative, religious construct," she wrote about her partner, Janaya Khan, a Black transgender immigrant. "We could build a new narrative steeped in the intersections of black love."

 

Alicia Garza(she/her)Garza co-founded the Black Lives Matter network with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Since the movement began, she's become a voice in media and has written on democracy, systematic racism, and police violence. As a queer woman, Garza is comittted to helping the world understand that it's not just cisgender Black men who are targeted by police, but also Black women, Black queer women, and Black transgender folks.

 

Ose Arheghan(they/them) started openly identifying as queer in the eighth grade, the microaggresions they faced motivated them to make their school safer for LGBTQ+ students. They volunteered on their high school’s cultural proficiency subcommittee, and they wrote a series about sexual and racial diversity for their school newspaper. This earned them the Student Advocate of the Year Award at the 2017 GLSEN Respect Awards. Ose has also worked with Advocates for Youth to champion sexual health education and reproductive justice for young people, and they currently write for GLAAD as a Campus Ambassador.

 

Yasmin Benoit(they/them) is a trailblazer in asexuality and aromantic advocacy, and she’s determined to show the world that asexuality is not just a “white thing.” Yasmin created the #ThisIsWhatAsexualityLooksLike campaign to highlight the diversity of the ace community, and she uses her YouTube channel to share the experiences and challenges she faces as an asexual and aromantic woman. Her hope is to make these identities more visible and defeat the stigma that exists against them.”

  • Tiffany Andrews, Product Manager, Login.gov
Last Reviewed: 2021-06-17