Recommended Books
Lesson 1: Grades 3–4
Lesson 2: Grades 5–6
Lesson 3: Grades 7–Up
Additional Resources
Online Activity Teacher's Guide

Lesson 1: Inventors & Trailblazers

Grade Level: 3–4

Lesson Introduction
Through this lesson, students learn about 10 African Americans whose innovations directly impacted transportation, health care, fashion, and even students’ own lunches! Using the guided research activities along with the discussion questions and teaching ideas below, help your students understand how these inventors’ achievements were significant because of both what they created and the barriers they often had to overcome.

Build Background
Before reading about the individual inventors, set up a timeline. Mark the center of your timeline with dates from 1840 to today, but leave some space at the beginning and end of the timeline for additional dates. Be sure all students can see the timeline (outline it on a chalk board, project it on a screen, etc.).

Have students share some “big” facts they know about history in the years between 1840 and today. Help them fill in important dates such as the Civil War, World War II, or the Great Depression. Students can use their textbooks or check the Additional Resources and Recommended Books for sources that will help them find exact dates.

Ask students to consider what life was like for African Americans during each of the periods you’ve marked on the timeline. Focus on the time before/after/during major events. Some things for the students to consider:

  • How much education did most black children have?
  • Where did they live?
  • What types of jobs did they have?
  • What were some differences between how a typical African American might have lived and how a middle class white person might have lived?

Ask students to consider similarities among black Americans, whites, and other ethnic or demographic groups. Probe them to consider limitations of technology or science during the various periods in history.

Teach with the Activities
Meet Notable Inventors:

  • Go through The Top Ten African-American Inventors  with students. Read the facts and explore each of the “Find Out More” links.
  • On the timeline, mark when each inventor lived:

    Elijah McCoy 1843–1929
    Lewis Latimer 1848–1928
    Jan Ernst Matzeliger 1852–1889
    Granville T. Woods 1856–1910
    George Washington Carver 1860–1943
    Madam C. J. Walker 1867–1919
    Garrett Morgan 1887–1963
    Otis Boykin 1920–1982
    Dr. Patricia E. Bath 1949– 
    Lonnie G. Johnson 1949–

  • Discuss how these inventors might have felt to be pioneers. Have students write a journal entry answering one of the following questions:

    • Do you think it was hard for some of these inventors to prove themselves and their inventions because of their skin color?
    • Why do you think that some of these inventors are not well known today?
    • What obstacles did these inventors face?
    • How might the inventors and the things they created been influenced by the times in which they lived?

 Put Yourself in their Shoes

Research Historic Figures:

  • Using the Additional Resources and Recommended Books, have students research a notable African American not featured in The Top Ten African-American Inventors activity (they may choose another inventor, a musician, politician, athlete, or other historic figure).
  • As they do their independent research, students should take notes.
  • When they’ve completed their research, students will use their notes to create a profile of their person like the ones featured in the inventor activity.
  • Have students present their profiles to the class. Presenters should be prepared to answer questions from fellow students.
  • Invite each student to add their person to the class timeline.

Explore the Traits of a Trailblazer

  • Hand out the Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet. Students should complete the sheet using information they gather in their research.
  • Using their research notes and Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet, have students write a brief paragraph about why the person they’ve researched is a trailblazer.
  • Work with each student to revise the paragraph, and then have them submit their paragraph online at Nominate a Trailblazer.

Extend Learning

Additional Activities

  • Read about the history of jazz. Add the musicians to your timeline and discuss how they were trailblazers like the inventors you’ve just researched. Have students consider these questions:
    • How might the inventors and the musicians have had similar experiences?
    • What differences were there between the inventors and the musicians?
    • What barriers or prejudices do you think jazz musicians faced?
  • Working in small groups, have students use the interactive timeline on black history. Then have students compare and contrast the lives of black Americans from two different periods in history.

Discussion Questions

  • Besides science and music, what other areas do you know African Americans have been trailblazers?
  • What traits seem to be important to be a trailblazer, inventor, or great musician?
  • Do you think these traits are related to race or skin color?
  • What would you have done if you were an African American during the 1700s? during the Civil War? In the early 20th century? During the civil rights movement?

4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks

Grades K–4 History

  • Understands how people over the last 200 years have continued to struggle to bring liberty and equality, as promised in the basic principles of American deomcracy, to all groups in American society.
  • Understands the accomplishments of ordinary people in historical situations and how each struggled for individual rights or for the common good
  • Understands historical figures who believed in the fundamental democratic values and the significance of these people both in their historical context and today