“A colored woman is capable of inventing
something for the benefit of mankind.”
A woman who comes from a seriously hardscrabble background yet still dedicates her life to helping the less fortunate is probably one of the most beautiful things in the world. Bessie Blount was one of those ladies and then some, and someone should build a statue in her honor in a visible and highly trafficked area.
Bessie was born in rural southeastern Virginia on November 24, 1914, to George Woodard and Mary Elizabeth Griffin, a couple who had next to nothing. Though it had been roughly half a century since slavery was outlawed in America, racism was still alive and well, and Bessie’s options as a Black woman in the small town of Hickory were limited. Just like her mother, Bessie attended elementary school at a one-room schoolhouse called Diggs Chapel, a church built by Black members of the local community after the Civil War; it was meant to educate former slaves, their children, and Native Americans. Bessie and her classmates didn’t have textbooks (though eventually they would receive hand-me-downs from white schools in the area), so they learned to read by quoting verses from the Bible. Discipline was harsh, and the rod was not spared. When one of Bessie’s teachers swatted her on the knuckles for writing with her left hand, Bessie taught herself to write with not just her right hand, but with her feet and even her teeth. Clearly, Bessie was willing to take on any challenge while laughing in its face.
Which was a good thing, because she was about to take on a lot of ’em. After Bessie’s family moved to New Jersey, she was forced out of school by the sixth grade. Undaunted, Bessie pushed hard to receive her GED in order to qualify for college, enrolling for training in both nursing (at Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Newark, the state’s only Black-owned hospital) and physical therapy (at Union Junior College and Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene). By 1944 Bessie’s desire to help the helpless had taken her as far as Chicago, where she studied physiotherapy and industrial design (and also a little modern dance) before heading to the Bronx. It was there that she found her first true calling.
Bessie was among the Red Cross’s Gray Ladies (so called because of their snazzy gray dresses and veils) working at Veterans’ Hospital Base 81, where she helped to rehabilitate World War II veterans, especially those who were disabled and trying to readapt to their lives stateside. “You’re not crippled, only crippled in your mind,” she would tell them, teaching them to write with their feet or their teeth, just as she had. She even set aside a room in her own home so that she could help patients more effectively. But for vets missing limbs, the challenges of mobility were greater, especially for basic tasks like eating. What new techniques or technology could be used to improve their lives?
With her background in tech, dance, and physical therapy, Bessie started to think in all directions to solve the problem. Wanting her patients to have as much agency in their lives as possible, the then-thirty-seven-year-old inventor set to work on a kind of electronic feeding tube for people who had lost limbs. She worked tirelessly (and sleeplessly), tinkering with her device between one and four most mornings. To create her invention, she used only plastic, boiling water to mold the material, a file, an ice pick, a hammer, and some dishes. The way it worked was pretty nifty: the tube would be attached to a food receptacle, which in turn was powered by a motor; every time the patient bit down on the tube, it would send a morsel of food zooming into their mouths. This allowed patients to control exactly how much to eat, and they could do so unassisted. Bing. Bang. Boom. It worked.
Bessie patented her invention and soon was hailed by the press as “the wonder woman” for her achievements in rehabilitation. The director emeritus of the American College of Surgeons even called her feeder “a most ingenious apparatus.” The VA was less convinced (or less willing to spend money) and turned down Bessie’s offer to sell the device to them for $100,000. No big—Bessie decided to donate her invention to the French government, which would go on to use it in military hospitals countrywide. But why would someone just give away such a brilliant design? “It may seem strange to be so happy over giving something that I spent five years and more than $3000 perfecting,” she said, “but I did what I thought best.” Bessie was less interested in personal fame, and more determined to prove “that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets.”
Besides, the feeding tube wasn’t Bessie’s only medical invention. She also patented a “portable receptacle support” (basically a bowl that you strap around your neck to eat from) that allowed “all persons suffering from a temporary or permanent impairment of the use of the arms and hands to conveniently and in comfort drink fluid from cups or bowls supported by the device.” And while acting as physical therapist to a nice older lady, she came up with a way to make a disposable emesis basin (read: bile bucket) out of baked newspaper, flour, and water—which, despite being super environmentally friendly, was yet again not good enough for the VA to purchase (but which was good enough for Belgium, where it’s still used today). Oh, and that nice older lady Bessie assisted? She was the mother-in-law of Theodore Edison, son of Thomas Edison, whose company would go on to produce some of Bessie’s devices. Inventor Inception. (Bwaaaam.)
Inventing wasn’t Bessie’s only calling, however. While she was busy improving veterans’ lives and helping people with disabilities maintain their dignity, she also fought for the desegregation of state-supported institutions whose mission was the education of people with disabilities. In addition, she wrote columns for the New Jersey Herald News and the Philadelphia Independent, for which she covered everything from Fidel Castro’s visit to Harlem to Lyndon Johnson’s presidential nomination. And as if that workload wasn’t enough, she joined the NAACP to do public relations work and wrote several medical papers that were published in respected journals, including one about “medical graphology,” or the relationship between a person’s health and their handwriting. The latter would become kind of an important thing in Bessie’s life because, in 1969—sick of the VA ignoring her sweet skills—Bessie started working as a forensic scientist for the police departments of Vineland, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. She went on to master the detection of forgeries with her amazing eye for handwriting and eventually assumed the role of chief document examiner until 1972, when the state of Virginia centralized its document examination. Rejected by the FBI because of her race, Bessie jumped across the pond to the United Kingdom, where—at age sixty-three!—she became the first American woman ever accepted into advanced studies at the Document Division of Scotland Yard. (The sweet British lads even took to calling her “Mom Bessie,” aww!)
But Bessie was still not done. For the next twenty years, she ran her own forensic science consulting business in the United States, for which she examined active court cases and historical records—that is, a ton of slavery-related papers, Civil War documents, and museum-held Native American–U.S. treaties—because she was all about helping people forever. Despite having racked up a literal lifetime’s worth of inventions, Bessie refused to give any of her gadgets to museums. “Why should I donate things I made, and they’ll charge students to go and see them? No!” she said. “I’ll take them to schools where the kids can hold them, touch them. I tell them, ‘You’re a part of history.’ ”
And so she did. In 2007, at the age of ninety-three, Bessie boarded a bus and traveled back to her hometown of Hickory with a suitcase full of old documents to show the people of Diggs Chapel what her life had been like at the beginning of the twentieth century. She wanted to build a library and museum dedicated entirely to the preservation of the town’s civil rights history, or, as she said, “a place for your children, grandchildren and future generations to come and see what it was like for slave children right after the Civil War. There’s no reason these things should be lost from history.”
After all that, you’d think maybe this lady might feel the effects of her many years, but nope. “A lot of people thought I was dead already,” Bessie told the local paper in Hickory during her visit. “But I ain’t gonna die now. I’m gonna live just for spite. ’Cause my work is not done.” She worked some more, until she passed away two years later, in 2009. Despite her long and well-known legacy, Bessie’s photo is often attributed to the Black inventors Marie Van Brittan Brown and Miriam Benjamin (thanks for that, Google Images, but there’s actually more than one Black woman inventor). But you and I know better than to get sucked into the Internet’s lies. Instead, let’s get sucked in by Bessie’s bravery and then get to work building a statue in her honor.