Director's Corner

Release Date: February 01, 2018

Honoring African American Contributions During Black History Month


African American inventor Rufus Stokes c.1940

February is Black History Month, an occasion that reminds us to celebrate the historical contributions of African Americans in our nation. This year’s national theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Known at the time as “The War to End All Wars,” the world had never seen a conflict of such magnitude.

World War II changed that, involving more world powers and greater numbers of soldiers. African Americans played a significant role, with the first all-black combat units established following pressure from civil rights leaders. The Tuskegee Airmen were among those units. They were the first squadron of African American soldiers trained by the Army Air Corps to fly and maintain combat aircraft. NETL will honor their service this month with a special video presentation of “Tuskegee Airman Tribute.” The U.S. Department of the Air Force film shares the inspiring story of how African Americans challenged our military’s discriminatory practices to triumph in combat and help end segregation in the armed forces. We will also recognize NETL’s African American veterans – including Monte Chapman, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who served as a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

NETL will also recognize Dr. Isaac Gamwo, who received the Joseph N. Cannon Award for Chemical Engineering at the 2017 annual conference of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. Gamwo was recognized for his nearly three decades of influential research in the field of chemical engineering and for his work training engineers at the University of Akron and Tuskegee University.

Like the Tuskegee Airmen, African American inventor Rufus Stokes also served during World War II, but as a member of the U.S. Army. Born in Alabama in 1924, Stokes and his wife, Bessie, moved to Chicago following his service with the Quartermaster Corps in western Europe. Trained as an auto mechanic during his time in the military, Stokes was eventually employed as a machinist for an incinerator company. This work inspired him to develop an air purification device designed to reduce the gas and ash emissions from furnaces and power plant smokestacks. The device, patented in 1968, improved air quality and kept nearby property cleaner. Stokes invested years of his life and thousands of dollars in his invention to enhance the safety of combustion systems, though he received limited recognition for it during his lifetime. He died of mesothelioma – caused by work-related exposure to asbestos – in 1986, at the age of 63.

It’s important to remember and honor the achievements of African American innovators past and present – like Stokes and Gamwo – not just during Black History Month, but year-round. Their research contributes to what we do at NETL to develop fossil energy technology that stimulates the economy, enhances safety and boosts our energy independence. As African American scholar John Henrik Clarke wrote, “history tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be.”

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.