Changemakers and Trailblazers: Celebrating the Past, Present and Future of Black History

Tanya Lombard, VP Global External Public Affairs – Head of Multicultural Engagement & Strategic Alliances
February 22, 2023
Broadband Access and Affordability, Community Impact, Innovation and Technology

Changemakers and Trailblazers: Celebrating the Past, Present and Future of Black History

“We create our future, by well improving present opportunities.” – Lewis Latimer

Many people may have never heard the name of Lewis Latimer, let alone know that he was the colleague of Alexander Graham Bell. As the founder of the company that would later become AT&T, Bell is, of course, known for inventing the telephone. Few know that it wouldn’t have happened if not for Latimer, the Black man who helped draft the drawings for the original telephone patent. His contributions brought the telephone to life and changed the world forever.

As we near the end of Black History Month, I’m inspired whenever we look back on the incredible legacy of Black innovators who’ve changed our world. They followed and lived by Latimer’s simple but impactful lesson: focus on improving present opportunities. And there’s no better time to reflect on and be grateful for the instrumental role the Black community had in creating our connected future.

Honoring Trailblazers

To say the landscape has drastically changed since Latimer sat at the drafting board almost 150 years ago is an understatement. Along the way, there have been changemakers who carried on Latimer’s work bringing communities together. People like Jesse Russell. Russell brought the world closer together when he led the first Bell Laboratories team that introduced digital cellular technology in America. The world we know today, where you can call a cousin in Louisiana from the car or a colleague in Los Angeles from a park, is the result of Russell’s work. His dream of a better-connected humanity resulted in endless possibilities.

Just as influential were Emmit McHenry and Tyrone Grigsby, the two owners of Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI). This Black-owned company played a crucial role in launching the internet worldwide. McHenry and Grigsby were also integral to AT&T’s history, too, when we contracted NSI to help manage the federal government’s communication system back in 2000.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight Marian Croak, one of the first Black women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. None of us may have been able to work remotely over the last three years were it not for Croak’s work on what we now commonly refer to as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

These Black trailblazers seized on their present opportunities to invent a better tomorrow. Black history is American history. And I’m grateful to spotlight the legacy of these innovators.

Connecting Future Changemakers

The contributions made by these Black innovators helped lay the foundation for the modern digital world where anyone with an internet connection can make a difference in their community. Their work in the telecommunications field drives our company to continue to connect more people and amplify more voices who will bring progress in the generations to come.

It’s in that spirit that we’ve focused on expanding internet connectivity to as many people as possible. AT&T has made unprecedented investments in our fiber and 5G wireless networks. But we realize there are still people who haven’t been reached, and there are still those who can’t utilize the connections they have. That’s why we’re working diligently with government leaders and local organizations to support connectivity.

We also realize this work only matters if we empower the next generation of Lewis Latimers and Marian Croaks. The foundation for this is in our contributions to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), our commitment to spending $3 billion with Black-owned suppliers and our Dream in Black initiative.

  • I’m particularly proud of Black Future Makers – our signature Dream in Black program – which, for the past five years, has been highlighting influential leaders and celebrating the contributions of changemakers impacting their communities.

Celebrating the accomplishments of the pioneers that come before us is also why events like the NAACP Image Awards are valuable and why we were one of the first corporate sponsors of this award show. Celebrating the role models that are helping our communities today helps inspire change for tomorrow and empowers the next generation of Black innovators and leaders. We hope that you will tune into the 54th show on February 25th!

Building a Brighter Future, Together

There’s no doubt Lewis Latimer thought he lived in the golden age of connectivity once the first telephone call went through. But I’m not sure there has ever been a more exciting time in connecting people than right now. Government leaders have put universal connectivity at the top of their priority lists. More federal funds are filling the gaps. Unprecedented investments are coming from the broadband industry.

This is a historic moment where the rubber is meeting the road on connectivity.

But we have to be smart and focused. If we’re going to connect everyone, there has to be a collaborative, holistic approach to address disparities and to ensure the underserved do not get left behind.

As you develop broadband plans for your state, I’d encourage all decisionmakers to think of the Latimers, Croaks, and other visionaries who wanted to make their community better. We have a duty to ensure we are addressing the broadband needs of every community, so that all Americans can be connected.

From the patent for the first telephone to amplifying voices advocating for equality, we’ve seen how connection can spark change. Let’s continue to work together to “well improve our present opportunity” to expand connectivity and to build a brighter, more connected future for us all. Afterall, our humanity is in our connections.