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Feb 19, 2021

Filling the archives with stories from Black Silicon Valley

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Researchers are recording new interviews with Black engineers and entrepreneurs to capture the history of the tech industry.

We talked last week about how the stories of Black inventors were literally left out of the history books documenting the early internet. But there are efforts underway to preserve that history.

In late 2019, archivists from Stanford University met in Fremont, California, with over a dozen Black engineers and entrepreneurs who had been working in the tech industry for decades. One of them was Danny Allen. “I [had] a very first engineering professor who said, ‘There are some people in this class that don’t belong here.’ The five of us out of 30,” Allen said. “I actually wound up hating engineering, but wound up becoming an engineer.”

Allen was an engineer for places including Bank of America and the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. He’s now the vice president of global diversity and inclusion at SAP Labs. Stanford was interviewing Allen and others for a new archive dedicated to the history of Black people working in Silicon Valley.

Henry Lowood helped build Stanford’s Silicon Valley Archives as a curator at the university. And he had realized that the stories of Allen and others at that meeting were missing from the university’s records. “To realize that there are substantial communities of successful people who have not been fully represented in the archive came as a bit of a shock,” Lowood said. “It’s kind of sad and disappointing that we’re at this position, but I’m very grateful to be in a situation where I can try to respond to it.”

Lowood had been inspired by Kathy Cotton, a longtime Silicon Valley recruiter-turned-archivist. She saw that no one was telling the stories of the many Black engineers and software developers she knew were important to the tech industry’s success. “I became a little upset about it and started thinking the story needs to be told correctly. Someone needs to tell the story,” Cotton said.

Cotton started filming interviews with people like Roy Clay, who helped create Hewlett-Packard’s first computer, and Wilbur Jackson, who started working at IBM in the 1960s. She put those interviews together in a documentary called “A Place at the Table.”  Her interviews will also be part of the new Stanford archive.

Cotton said it might have been the big executives who made headlines, but those newspaper records don’t say much about the engineers doing the inventing. “Many times, these people are working for large corporations and they’re kind of buried in a division,” Cotton said. “What happens is, when Black folks are doing the work, it gets lost. Somehow it gets lost.”

Cotton wants that work to be documented because, she said, when you see yourself in the past, you are assured of your future.

Stanford plans to make its archives available to other researchers later this year and will continue to add to it.

In late 2019, Stanford Libraries organized two community events that brought some of Silicon Valley’s Black pioneers together for an afternoon of storytelling. Attendees included San Jose community organizer Queen Ann Cannon, pictured here talking with Carl Davis Jr., president of the Black Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. In the background is the entrepreneur Danny Allen and Janie Jensen. The event was recorded for the archive.
In 2019, Stanford Libraries brought together some of Silicon Valley’s Black pioneers to share their stories. Above, community organizer Queen Ann Cannon talks with Carl Davis Jr., president of the Silicon Valley Black Chamber of Commerce. (Photo courtesy of Chris Cotton)

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

More on the history of tech discrimination. When it comes to improving diversity in tech today, many companies point to the “pipeline problem,” the idea that there isn’t a big enough pool of candidates from diverse backgrounds and if only there were enough training or educational outreach programs, they could hire more people of color.

A researcher at New York University’s AI Now Institute is studying the history of this idea. In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Joy Rankin said this claim has been made for decades, even though, for example, coding was dominated by women back in the ’50s. It was only when computing became culturally important that it was considered suitable for men. She says the “pipeline” has become a “convenient excuse for a host of sins,” including structural racism in the industry and beyond.

And GameStop stock had another minirally Thursday before falling again, after a trader known on Reddit as Roaring Kitty testified before the House Financial Services Committee about his role spearheading the GameStop buying frenzy, saying he’s still optimistic about the stock. He appeared via Zoom in a red gaming chair, in front of one of those iconic posters of a dangling kitty with the words “Hang In There.”

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer