Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 96: Which black man made many of our favorite household products better?
Halloween candy is big business in the United States. This year, as reported in the New York Post, sales are expected to reach $2.5 billion, and, according to the National Confectioners Association, “about 75 percent of households plan to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters,” with “78 percent [of parents] confess[ing] to sharing candy from their child’s haul.” This all means having to be extra vigilant about taking care of our teeth—flossing, brushing and rinsing just to keep pace with all of that chocolate and candy corn. Otherwise, we risk cavities and, worse, a dreaded root canal. We’ve all heard the warnings—me, especially, since my brother is an oral surgeon!
You know another thing that decays inside the head if we’re not careful? The mind. Which is why it’s so important that we ask questions about everything within our reach—particularly about our history.
For example, did you ever wonder, standing in the mirror polishing your pearly whites after munching on candy, who developed the formula for one of the most iconic brands of oral hygiene products? I’m thinking specifically of Crest, which has been around in toothpaste form since I was a kid and has always been a leader in the field. I dare you to walk down the aisles of any pharmacy or grocery store in America and not see the Crest name on some product or another.
Inventing is a collaborative exercise, of course, as my friend Walter Isaacson reminds us in his riveting new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, so it’s critical from the start not to overstate the case of any single inventor in what is an iterative, constantly evolving process of improvement. That being said, I learned that among the team of geniuses behind the development of Crest products over the years was a black man—a black Ph.D., in fact, who should be in our thoughts this Halloween.
His name was Dr. Herbert C. Smitherman Sr., and he was one bad brother. Although he didn’t invent Crest toothpaste, he dramatically improved the Crest formula for protecting our teeth so we can smile in all those selfies and ussies being taken nowadays. Smitherman’s distinguished career as an inventor at Proctor & Gamble, the parent company of Crest, is impressive by itself. But it’s even more impressive when set within the longer legacy of black inventors, stretching all the way back to slavery days. (And I’m not just talking about one of our people’s genuine heroes, the genius George Washington Carver!)
Meet the Inventor of ‘Combined Anticalculus and Antiplaque Compositions’
Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr. was the first African-American Ph.D. to work for Proctor & Gamble. His son Christopher Smitherman called him “the Jackie Robinson of Proctor & Gamble,” and even though Smitherman passed away more than four years ago, his legacy remains with many of us when we brush our teeth before heading out the door each morning. Here’s what I learned about his amazing achievements from reading his 2010 obituary, which my friend Nathaniel F. Queen Jr. sent to me via the Cincinnati Herald.
Smitherman was born on March 23, 1937, the only child of a minister and his wife. He grew up in Birmingham, Ala., just down the street from the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Sr., long before the latter co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and marched against Jim Crow.
Smitherman graduated from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and earned his Ph.D. at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1966, just a year after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Smitherman became “the first African American hired by Procter and Gamble with a Ph.D in physical organic chemistry,” his obituary states. “Some of the many patents he developed for P&G [were] featured in the ‘America I AM: The African American Imprint’ exhibit at Cincinnati Museum Center,” which later went to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture in Charlotte, N.C. “The products he helped create and develop,” the obituary continues, “included Crest toothpaste, Safeguard soap, Bounce fabric softeners, Biz, Folgers Coffee, Crush soda flavors, among others.”
Crest toothpaste? When I read this, my jaw dropped. Laundry products, too? Just to make sure it was true, I searched the United States Patent and Trademark Office database, which contains traces of records dating to 1790. And, to my delight, I found two patents issued under Smitherman’s name:
Patent No. 5,015,467: Combined anticalculus and antiplaque compositions: “Tartrate monosuccinate and tartrate disuccinate compounds of the formulae … are used in combination with various polymers to provide anticalculus and antiplaque effects on teeth. Oral care compositions such as dentifrices, mouthwashes, and the like, are provided. Use of the tartate-succinates and polymers in combination with other oral car ingredients such as fluoride, pyrophosphate and antibacterials is also described.”
This patent was part of the development of many of our everyday brush and rinse routines and has been cited by 31 other patents, according to the database! Crest toothpaste may have been initially developed in the 1950s, as the Crest website makes clear, and that was before Smitherman joined P&G. But, during his time at the company, he was a valuable member of the development team, and in assigning his patent to the company (standard industry practice), Smitherman was fortifying the Crest product line for millions of consumers.
Here’s the other patent I found for Smitherman, from 1973:
Patent No. 3,755,429: Process for the preparation of sulfonated detergent composition. “A process for preparing a water-soluble sulfonated reaction product having excellent detergent properties which uses alpha-olefins as the starting reactant.”
Smitherman was a chemical whiz, from detergents to oral care, and these were just the patents for which he was credited as the inventor. Remember, it’s all about “collaborative creativity,” as Isaacson writes.
Then there were the lives Smitherman touched. As his obituary records: “Many of the African Americans at P&G in the 60s, 70s and 80s were recruited and retained by him.” Smitherman’s son Herbert Smitherman Jr. is quoted as saying, “ ‘My father leaves a legacy of diversity at P&G. … There were a lot of challenges facing African Americans in corporate industry at the time. He tried to build bridges and open opportunities for everyone in the industry, including African Americans.’ ”
First Known African-American Inventors
Imagine all the creations Smitherman touched as a team member, leader and role model at P&G. He also was part of a long line of black inventors who were little known in the United States, and part of a tradition of invention in his adopted state of Ohio. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there are more remarkable facts to share from the Buckeye State.
First, though, it must be emphasized that African Americans have been patenting inventions in the United States since before the Civil War. In doing so, they have powerfully validated the argument advanced by the black abolitionist and novelist William Wells Brown in his 1863 collection The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements:
THE calumniators and traducers of the Negro are to be found, mainly, among two classes. The first and most relentless are those who have done them the greatest injury, by being instrumental in their enslavement and consequent degradation. They delight to descant upon the ‘natural inferiority’ of the blacks, and claim that we were destined only for a servile condition, entitled neither to liberty nor the legitimate pursuit of happiness. The second class are those who are ignorant of the characteristics of the race, and are the mere echoes of the first. To meet and refute these misrepresentations, and to supply a deficiency, long felt in the community, of a work containing sketches of individuals who, by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, have surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way, and raised themselves to positions of honor and influence, this volume was written.
Brown preserved the contributions of many of the pioneering intellects of the race, among them many of Smitherman’s forebears in the patenting arts. They included these three geniuses: Thomas L. Jennings, Judy Reed and Sarah Goode.
For example, get this, according to David Kappos when he was director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office: “Although slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions in the antebellum period, free black inventors were not. Thomas L. Jennings, born in 1791, was 30 when he received a patent for a dry-cleaning process, making him what historians believe was the first black inventor to receive a patent. Jennings’s income went mostly to his abolitionist activities, and in 1831 he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia.”
Then there was Judy Reed, who, despite not being “able to sign her name,” according to the USPTO, “may be the first African American woman to receive a patent. Signed with an ‘X,’ patent no. 305,474, granted September 23, 1884, is for a dough kneader and roller.”
Right behind her was Sarah Goode, whose “patent for a cabinet bed, patent no. 322,177, was issued on July 14, 1885. Goode, the owner of a Chicago furniture store at the time of her invention, invented a folding bed that could be formed into a desk when not in use.”
Patricia Carter Sluby has written two valuable books on the subject of black patents, The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity and The Entrepreneurial Spirit of African American Inventors, which I invite you to consult to learn more.
But what about the Ohio connection I was talking about?
The ‘Underground’ Ohio Connection
Turns out, as I was preparing this column, I received word from my friend Bill Turpie that, over the summer, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, both of Ohio, had introduced legislation to dedicate a stop on the Underground Railroad in their state to the National Park System. It’s called the John P. Parker House (a National Historic Landmark since 1997), found at 300 Front St. in Ripley, Ohio, just under 60 miles east of Cincinnati.
What does this have to do with inventions, you ask? According to Brown’s office:
John P. Parker was born into slavery in 1827. Initially living in Norfolk, Virginia, Parker was bought and sold multiple times before securing his freedom in 1845. Following his liberation, Parker moved to Cincinnati and ultimately settled in the Village of Ripley, Ohio, located in Brown County. Parker went on to own and operate a successful metal foundry, becoming one of the first African-Americans to receive patents for his inventions.
In addition to his successful business, Parker became an active member of the Underground Railroad. Historical records attribute Parker with helping secure the freedom of hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Parker worked with abolitionist John Rankin, and together they supported a robust abolitionist movement on the Ohio River. The John P. Parker home is located on North Front Street in Ripley and has operated under the John P. Parker Historical Society since 1996.
Parker was a slave who, once free, established himself as an inventor and aided those escaping bondage behind him as he rose to prominence in Ohio, the same state to which Smitherman migrated a century later from Tuskegee as a Ph.D. for Proctor & Gamble. While Congress studies what to do with the Parker House, let’s do our part by preserving his story and the family tree of black inventors down to Smitherman. We also need to do more to encourage young black women and men to enter scientific fields today, as such friends as Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Insitutute, and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others, so eloquently do.
Education is certainly what Smitherman dedicated his life to, up to his death at age 73 on Oct. 9, 2010. According to his obituary:
“After retiring from Procter and Gamble after 29 years there, Dr. Smitherman served as vice president of academic affairs for Wilberforce University,” the same historically black university where W.E.B. Du Bois once taught. Smitherman “then started a high school called Western Hills Design Technology to assist African American students in performing well in math and science. He later joined the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education as an assistant to Superintendent Mary Ronan.” Just like the slave-turned-inventor John P. Parker, Smitherman “lifted as he climbed.”
“ ‘Ultimately, my father’s life was about assisting and helping others,’ ” his son Herbert reflected in the Cincinnati Herald. “ ‘He assisted households by developing products to make their lives easier. He assisted college students at Wilberforce in improving their chemistry skills and how to better understand industry. He worked with high school students to prepare them for college. He was always working to make the community better, opening doors to industry and potential advancement.’ ”
May each of us do the same. After all, we live at time when STEM education is the sine qua non of a viable high school education. And as African-American children, like all children, adapt to changes emphasizing science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the curriculum, it’s important for us to teach them that absolutely none of those subjects is new to the African-American tradition. We’ve been crossing these rivers, literally, from slavery to freedom, through men like John P. Parker, all the way down to Dr. Herbert C. Smitherman Sr. and an unprecedented number of black scientists at work and in graduate school today. And we have the patent numbers in the system to prove it.
Whether you use Crest products or not, that’s something we can all smile about this Halloween!
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.