Welcome to Black History Month! This annual observance, which takes place throughout the month of February, provides an opportunity to reflect on the profound impact that African-Americans have had on history, culture, science, politics and countless other facets of human achievement.

Black History Month traces its roots back to 1926 and the pioneering efforts of Carter G. Woodson. During the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Woodson initiated a week-long celebration dedicated to showcasing the achievements of Black Americans. Over the years, his celebration evolved into the month-long observance we recognize today, serving as a platform to amplify the stories, struggles, triumphs and contributions of African-American individuals throughout history.

To mark the occasion, we thought it would be fitting to honor African-American innovators who have made noteworthy contributions to our two passions - printing and coffee

Black Inkfluence on Printing

George Washington Carver: Ink Inventor

Born into slavery in the 1860s, George Washington Carver bravely rose above his tumultuous childhood and earned a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State Agricultural College. He went on to earn a Master of Science and lead the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. 

After the Civil War, fields in the South were practically barren from years of solely growing cotton, leaving the economy in ruins. Passionate about improving the economic condition of the region’s impoverished farmers, Carver encouraged them to plant legumes to restore nitrogen levels in the soil and provide a potent source of protein for their diets.

While the plants thrived, there was little market demand for the harvested produce. Consequently, Carver undertook the task of innovating new and lucrative applications for the crops. His efforts yielded an astonishing 325 novel uses for the peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans cultivated by the farmers — among them, the unexpected creation of printer ink!

Carver’s ink was composed of cowpeas, sweet potatoes, soybeans and peanuts. Today, based on his innovative formula, most oil-based printer ink still leverages linseed or soybean oil as a solvent to combine pigments, and the ink dries through evaporation. 

William A. Lavalette: Printing Press Pioneer

Unfortunately, very little is known about William A. Lavalette, the inventor behind two separate patents focused on printing press innovations. 

Patent 208184 offered critical improvements to the printing press, and Patent 208208 outlined Lavalette’s own visionary variation of the technology. 

In 1878, the year he was awarded his patents, Lavalette was living in the northeast. He passed away on January 9, 1914, at the age of 73.

Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus: Photo Development Deviser

Born in 1863, and believed to be of Afro-Cuban descent, Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus revolutionized the photographic print and negative wash machine. 

During the development process, photographs and negatives had to be soaked in chemical baths. To neutralize the chemicals and control the time they impacted the print, a wash had to be applied. Unfortunately, it was easy to “overwash” prints, leaving them with a dulled appearance. 

Dorticus set out to design a machine that helped prevent the “softened or dulled” effect produced by overwashing, while also improving the “permanency of the negatives” and preventing “tearing and bruising of the photographs.” His washer provided “continuous movement of the pictures during washing,” which kept prints from sticking to the side of the tank. It even helped conserve water, thanks to automatic registers and shut off. The tank’s removable bottom helped further protect the prints and negatives from any residual chemicals and sediments. 

Dorticus also patented a photo embossing machine, designed to give photographs a 3D effect, where “an equal pressure” was “distributed over the entire surface of the photographic film.” It “operated with ease and rapidity” and was the “embodiment of simplicity, strength, and durability which can be produced at a very small cost.” 

Elements of both of Dorticus’ patents were cited in new ones for decades to come. 

Contributions of Black Coffee Connoisseurs

Though painful to discuss, it is a well-known fact that the first coffee exported to North America and Europe was harvested by slaves. As time went on, enslaved Africans were responsible for preparing and serving coffee for their slave owners. Despite the significant role the African diaspora played in coffee’s history, very little is known about the Black leaders and innovators who undoubtedly shaped its trajectory. 

Even today, African-Americans are vastly underrepresented in the coffee industry, and research shows they are far less likely than other ethnic groups to select coffee as their preferred beverage. 

Thankfully, there’s one woman on a mission to uncover the trailblazers of the past and improve representation in the future. 

Phyllis Johnson: Coffee Crusader

Phyllis Johnson, founder and president of BD Imports, a socially responsible coffee importer, has been working tirelessly to identify and raise awareness about Black changemakers in coffee’s history, as well as bolster African-American involvement in today’s coffee scene. 

Her 2018 article, “Strong Black Coffee,” is a must-read. It offers important and eye-opening perspectives from 14 different African-American professionals in the coffee industry, as well as valuable insight on how to effectively improve representation and visibility.  

The article also chronicles Johnson’s quest to uncover the Black innovators and visionaries who have made important contributions to coffee throughout history. She spotlights one particularly brave and endeavoring soul, Rose Nicause, who managed to single-handedly pave the way for African-Americans (and women) in coffee. 

Rose Nicause: Early Entrepreneur

Rose Nicaud was a pioneering enslaved woman who set up what is believed to be the very first mobile coffee shop near the New Orleans French Market. Over time, Nicaud sold enough coffee to not only purchase her freedom, but to move into a permanent shop. 

Her success inspired other enslaved women to create their own coffee blends and ultimately led to the growth of coffee shops throughout the city.

Thankfully, as of late, some incredible new African-American leaders have emerged in the world of coffee, furthering the groundwork laid by Nicause and Johnson. 

Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson: Coffee Couple

Started by Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson, a husband and wife duo, Memphis-based Cxffeblack is working diligently to shed light on coffee’s dark history. The brand was inspired by Jones’ keen observation that coffee shops are teeming with coffee from predominantly Black countries - but rarely attract Black customers. 

Cxffeeblack strategically employs an all-Black supply chain, and Jones’ intention is “to redistribute the wealth from the profits in that coffee back into Black communities globally to help redistribute a lot of the wealth that was taken from our ancestors.”

Henderson oversees the roasting in a nod to Ethiopian tradition, where women have served as roasters and baristas for thousands of years - a fact that has virtually gone unknown until now. Memphis’ first Black female roaster, Henderson actually traveled to Ethiopia to hone her craft.

For more on Cxffeeblack, check out their official documentary and feature in COOL HUNTING.  

As we embark on this month-long journey of reflection and education, let us commit ourselves to fostering a deeper understanding of the Black experience, acknowledging the resilience, creativity and perseverance that has shaped and continues to shape our world. By recognizing and appreciating the achievements of Black pioneers, leaders and visionaries, we move towards a more inclusive and equitable future for all.