On this day in 1897, African American inventor Andrew J. Beard was awarded a patent for his automatic railroad car coupling device, the Jenny Coupler, which is still in use today. In the early days of the railroad, cars were manually linked together, an extremely dangerous process that required a rail worker to brace himself between the cars and drop a metal pin in place at the precise moment the cars came together. Many workers lost life and limb; Beard himself labored in rail yards and saw horrific accidents take place and even lost his own leg. Beard’s Jenny Coupler, which hooks cars together automatically, has saved untold numbers of lives. Beard's other inventions include two plow designs and a rotary steam engine.
Working on the railroad was a formative experience for many African American families. Consider beloved actor and HistoryMaker Ossie Davis, who recalled his father’s work on the railroad and his place in the community of Waycross, Georgia:
“My daddy, though he was a worker, was no ordinary worker. In the first place, he was a railroad man, and in Waycross and Cogdell during those days, people who worked on the railroad were looked upon with a little more reverence than the average worker. Daddy was not a Pullman porter or anything of that kind. He worked on the section gang that built the railroads and cut the right of way, and kept the equipment maintained and the brush cleaned, and all of that sort of thing. He was in charge of the section gang, and this was something of an anomaly in Waycross, Georgia, because there were people in and out of the Ku Klux Klan who thought that my daddy, being a black man, did not deserve having the job of being in charge of keeping up this little railroad… As I watched him as a child, I became aware of the degree to which he was not only very much like the men but in his own way quite different. He was a leader. He was a person whom the men instinctively called Chief, and both whites and blacks in this segregated community looked up to him.”