It may be hard to tell, based on the even-keeled post-racial atmosphere that pervades our society today, but America used to have a problem with discrimination.
It wasn't until the early-to-mid-20th century that people looked around and realized that, hey, the cast of characters in your standard U.S. History text just-so-happened to be whiter than a musical comedy written by Garrison Keillor. Understandably this bias led to a bunch of legitimately impressive people of color getting totally screwed out of their rightful place in the annals of Stuff We Wrote Down. People like ...
5The First Guy To Reach The North Pole Got Trumped By A White Egomaniac
In 1909, Robert Peary made the front page of basically every paper in America for being the first man ever to reach the North Pole. It was an important accomplishment, both because it represented man's earnest attempt to reckon with his own inevitable mortality by dominating the Natural World as a stand-in for conquering Death itself, and because it was really cold and nobody had planted a flag there yet.
Robert Edwin Peary
"We peed on it, too."
You want to know who didn't get top billing? Peary's black partner, Matthew Henson, who had been acting as his expedition aide since 1887. He was essentially the Murtaugh to Peary's Riggs -- that is, if Lethal Weapon featured two hours of Danny Glover doing actual detective work while Mel Gibson stood around with his dick in his hands.
Henson was an esteemed hunter and sled-driver who (unlike Peary) spoke the Inuit language and could communicate with their guides. He also did pretty much all the work, given that Peary was essentially an invalid due to losing eight toes to frostbite on a previous expedition. Henson was the de-facto leader of the expedition and pretty much the only reason they reached the North Pole at all. Meanwhile, Peary's role was best described as "cargo."
In fact, Matthew Henson was so good that he ended up beating Peary's insatiable lust to be the first man on the North Pole by accident: It was Henson who arrived on the Pole a good 45 minutes before Peary.
Unfortunately, Peary was the kind of guy even his biographers describe as "the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration." His plan was to leave Henson behind before he reached the actual Pole proper, so he could get sole credit, and he wasn't mightily happy when Henson accidentally foiled the plot. Luckily (for him), Peary had a major ace in the hole: Henson was a black guy in an age when just inviting a black person to dine at the White House was enough to make the entire country lose its collective shit, so there was no goddamn way Henson would end up sharing a rostrum with Peary -- a fact that Peary exploited to great effect by hogging roughly all the glory available on the Northern hemisphere.
E. J. Reilly
He wore white tie 24/7.
For his role in finding the Pole, Peary received an Admiral's rank in the U.S. Navy, was awarded the Hubbard Medal, got invited to the White House, and lived the rest of his life on an 8,000-dollar-a-year pension. This is all on top of making the front page of every major newspaper and becoming a household name like Lewis & Clark. Henson, on the other hand, would receive little recognition among the general public until he was awarded a posthumous Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic society in freaking 2000.
He died an obscure Customs clerk on a 2,000-dollar-a-year pension. His niece once got disciplined at school for claiming that her uncle helped discover the North Pole.
4The Inventor Of The First Tractor Got Zuckerberged By Slavery
via Wiki Commons
Ah, Cyrus McCormick! History and/or engineering buffs may recognize him as the man who patented the Mechanical Reaper in 1834. This metal-as-fuck sounding hell-vehicle was unfortunately just the first tractor, but the invention made him pretty famous anyway (considering it's a big reason we haven't all starved by now) and earned him the sweet nickname of "The Father of Modern Agriculture". Also, a buttload of money.
He did not spend it on razors.
Which is pretty fine, considering that his inventor partner, Jo Anderson, saw precisely zilch of all that fame and cash. By admission of the ex-curator of McCormick Farm, Anderson had as much to do with the development of the reaper as McCormick. His input and effort were vital to the development of the mechanical reaper (if you don't start a metal band by that name, we will), but he got absolutely no credit for his contributions.
Try not to fall out of your chair, now, but this was because he was black. And a slave.
via Wiki Commons
A non-mechanical reaper.
That's not to say McCormick necessarily actively stole credit from Anderson. The two of them grew up together and some accounts indicate they were more like brothers than a master and a slave, and McCormick's offspring showered Anderson with praise in their writing. Anderson was eventually freed before the Civil War but found life as a free black man difficult in Virginia. He was supported by the McCormicks until his death. He died a bachelor on a small swath of McCormick-owned property. Meanwhile, by 1924 the McCormick family were listed as the 10th wealthiest family in United States, edging out the freaking Guggenheims.
In this case, the active screwer-over was none other than the government. Problem number 6,851 with slavery was that under U.S. intellectual property laws, anything invented by a slave couldn't be patented by said slave, because a slave had no rights. It couldn't be patented by his master, either, because he hadn't invented it. So the moment a slave was officially acknowledged as playing a significant role in an invention, the master lost all rights to it and so did the slave. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the end result of that particular piece of legislation: Anderson became one of the who-knows-how-many African-American inventors whose names were just left off patent applications, as their white masters cleaned up the house on the backs of their ideas.