Energy Highlights – Black Changemakers Through the Centuries

Black Changemakers

From inventors and engineers to forward-thinking entrepreneurs and fierce advocates, many remarkable black Americans have helped shape our energy landscape for the better. Lewis Howard Latimer, Hazel O’Leary and Jessica Matthews are three shining examples. Spanning centuries, their contributions have revolutionized everyday life, advanced our nation’s growth and given rise to new generations of energy changemakers.

Inspired by these and other black voices throughout energy history, FirstEnergy works to honor their contributions and achievements through its demonstrated commitment to its customers and core values, including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 

“Our industry is changing rapidly, and we need different perspectives at the table to drive positive change and meet the challenges ahead,” says Brian Tierney, President and CEO of FirstEnergy. “When we’re making important decisions for our company and customers, it’s important that we listen to a broad range of voices, including people of color, to help make the best decisions.”

Lewis Howard Latimer: 19th Century Self-Taught Inventor

Thomas Edison may be the household name when it comes to lightbulbs, but it was Lewis Howard Latimer’s durable carbon filament that made light bulbs more affordable and brought them into common use in American homes. 

Latimer developed his mechanical drawing skills while serving with the Union Navy during the Civil War. A son of former slaves, Latimer had no formal training in science yet went on to make significant contributions to the development and implementation of electric lighting.

While working for Edison’s competitor in 1881, the United States Electric Lighting Company, Latimer co-developed a method for attaching carbon filaments to conducting wires that offered greater protection from heat stress during conduction. In 1882, he improved the way carbon filaments were manufactured, wrapping filaments in cardboard to reduce breakage during production. Two years later, Latimer joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he used his expertise to litigate patents and supervise large-scale electric lighting installations in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London.

In 2006, Latimer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for making incandescent lighting more practical and affordable for consumers.

Hazel O’Leary: 20th Century Advocate for Efficient and Clean Energy

In 1993, Hazel O’Leary became the first woman and first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Energy. O’Leary’s efforts helped shape a more sustainable and accountable energy landscape, paving the way for advancements in clean energy technologies and the responsible management of energy resources.

A strong advocate for consumers and the environment, O’Leary sought increased funding for research on renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, and energy-efficient technologies. Her outreach efforts and energy policies helped improve standards and increase adoption of energy efficiency practices across various industries.

O’Leary also prioritized transparency in the energy sector, making the Department of Energy’s (DOE) operations and information more open to the public. Discussing the administration’s new Openness Initiative in 1994, O’Leary described “openness” as “the mission” – a practice she saw as crucial for building public trust, enabling collaboration, driving progress and preparing for the 21st century.  She hoped the initiative would lead to “using science and technology from the [DOE] to benefit the nation in all areas.”

Jessica Matthews: 21st Century Energy, Accessibility and Sustainability Innovator

At just 22 years old, Nigerian American inventor Jessica O. Matthews was already a rising star and energy innovator. As the co-founder and CEO of Uncharted, Matthews gained early recognition for developing Soccket and Pulse, a soccer ball and jump rope that harness kinetic energy during play.

In 2021, Matthews was appointed to the Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee. As a member of the Smart Grid Subcommittee, she uses her expertise to help modernize our country’s electric delivery system and grow electrical vehicle infrastructure to better serve people living throughout the United States.

Matthews’ efforts have not only advanced the development of sustainable energy technologies but have also inspired a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs, readying them to support a clean energy future and help find solutions to address energy poverty and global sustainability challenges. A strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the technology and energy sectors, she works to empower underrepresented groups and promote their participation in STEM fields.

Last Modified: February 28, 2024