Fifty years ago, Frank Greene and fellow students at Washington University in St. Louis sat in at nearby restaurants waiting to be served.
The results were fruitless, although Greene was at the time an Air Force R.O.T.C. cadet on the way to being commissioned.
Then one day, the waitress came up, and asked them for their order. “The problem was that between us we didn’t have enough money for one order, so from that day, I’ve always said, you have to be prepared for opportunity when it arrives,” Greene recalled in an interview taped for the documentary Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge, which will be part of the exhibition Soul of Technology: 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology in the lobby of Palo Alto City Hall beginning Feb. 2, 2009 at 5 p.m.
Less than 10 years later, Greene had a patent for the fastest semiconductor memory, developed for Fairchild labs, and was already teaching electrical engineering at Stanford University.
Already there was another Missourian, Roy Clay Sr., then director of research and development for Hewlett Packard’s computer division, although in 1951, McDonnell Aircraft had told him “there were no jobs for professional Negroes.” Clay had showed up for an interview with a mathematics degree from St. Louis University. The interviewers were taken aback to find out he was black.
By 1955, McDonnell had to hire him to program its new computer. Clay came to Silicon Valley in 1958 to run the “supercomputer” at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, the most advanced in the world at the time.
Clay became known as the “godfather of black Silicon Valley” for his role in opening information technology to many more African-Americans. At Hewlett-Packard, he began recruiting at historically-black colleges and universities.
After leaving to greenlight companies like Intel, Compaq and Tandem at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Clay launched EPA Electronics to create jobs in the predominately black unincorporated area called East Palo Alto.
In 1977, Clay founded Rod-L Electronics, still the only Underwriters Laboratory certified manufacturer of dielectric withstand testers, safety equipment which tests practically every electronic device sold in the United States.
These pacesetters opened doors for thousands of students, and as many as 400,000 African-Americans who work in information technology.
The ninth annual list of the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology is a testament to the central role that blacks continue to play in the development of the most advanced technologies.
Palo Alto’s City Hall is located at 250 Hamilton Ave.
For more details on the promise of technology for African-Americans, check out our book The Black Students Internet Guide.