Friday, December 31, 2010

The Empowerment Experiment: Chicago Family Buys Black Only


Sunday, December 19, 2010

SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards! ALBUM OF THE YEAR (INDEPENDENT) Angela Johnson - It's Personal

The show is over, and what a show it was! After months of preparations and ballots going out to thousands of SoulTrackers, the winners of the 2010 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards were announced during our international broadcast on December 7th.  Many thanks to our host, Jodine Dorce, Fusicology's Nina Morena and all of the stations around the world that carried the broadcast.
And thanks to you, SoulTrackers, for participating and voting for your favorites! Click Here to see all the finalists.

Read more: Winners of 2010 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards! | SoulTracks - Soul Music Biographies, News and Reviews 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Be a Father to Your Child: Real Talk from Black Men on Family, Love, and Fatherhood

How do young black fathers relate to their children, as well as to their own fathers? How do they see — and play — their roles in both family and community? These are some of the big questions this timely, accessible book addresses. Written by both popular commentators and those who have experienced the issues firsthand, Be a Father to Your Child begins with a frank discussion of how family formation has changed since the 1960s, especially for communities of color. Individual selections then flesh out historical, sociological, and cultural contexts, examining the impact of welfare, child support, criminal justice, and employment policies on young men of color. In addition to this analytical material, the book presents more personal, anecdotal pieces — including poems and lyrics, short stories, and interviews — that form a powerful composite portrait of the challenges facing modern communities of color, and how to overcome them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

The Harlem Renaissance remains exciting, inspiring, and irresistible in the first half of the 21st Century for the same reason that the many people who lived it found it exciting, inspiring, and irresistible in the first half of the 20th Century. Despite the soul-crushing challenges of war, racism, sexism, and political oppression of every kind, poets of the Harlem Renaissance shined a light of hope with the defiant brilliance of their songs, visual artists empowered their communities with the strength of visions that reinforced individual dignity, writers lent the power of their pens in service to the voices and lives of their people, and advocates for democracy stood their ground until justice was duly recognized and properly served. In this, the world’s first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, we do something more than witness the triumphs and tragedies of poets such as Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer, novelists like Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and performance artists such as Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. Through their challenges and victories, we are encouraged to identify and claim our own challenges and victories.

Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance takes us inside the clubs, theatres, and relationships that made Harlem, New York City, the one-time “Party Capital of the World,” and one of the greatest cultural centers of any era. It also places on bold display the genius that gave the world ragtime, Jazz, the blues, gospel, swing, and all night dancing. Whereas previously we thought of the Harlem Renaissance primarily as the literary achievement of a handful of writers, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance demonstrates that it was a triumphant exultation of creative genius across the cultural board and one that spread both nationally and internationally. Moreover, through leaders such as James Weldon Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, and W. E. B. Du Bois, it laid the foundation for what would grow into the extraordinary Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This is the kind of book one is happy to share with another but even happier to give as a gift while keeping one’s own.

Book Excerpt:

"Whereas it might be erroneous to claim that the literature, art, and music of the Harlem Renaissance revolutionized the practice of democracy in the United States, it would not be an error to point out that the ideas they championed did impact on America’s understanding, and subsequently its application, of democracy. The absurdities, contradictions, and hypocrisies of the racist mentality that ruled America was publicly dissected time and again to clarify the painful difference between what the country proposed to do in the name of freedom and what it in fact did do under the presumptions of white superiority. Harlem Renaissance writers and artists fashioned a powerful mirror of conscience that forced the United States to confront the reality of its moral and political failures in regard to its citizen “Negroes.” By promoting and sharing the experience of black culture the men and women of the Harlem Renaissance set in motion the mechanism that would allow the idea of “Negroes” as Americans to become in the long decades that followed, the reality of blacks as African Americans. "

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


When Mama and Great-Grammaw weave the striking cornrow patterns of Africa into their children's hair, their gentle voices also weave a tale full of pride and heritage.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

2025 Campign For Black Men and Boys


We will create a society with new social and economic realities that inspire ambition and hope among African descendant males and accommodate the pursuit and realization of their dreams. We will initiate and support efforts that restore aspiration among and create conditions for African descendant males to realize their destiny and contribute greatness to the world. We believe this endeavor advances humanity and increases our collective capacity to heal injustice.

To collaboratively develop and implement an initiative for the educational, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, political and economic development and empowerment of African descendant men and boys in the United States.


• Raise the visibility of critical issues facing Black Men and Boys nationally and in select local communities in a way that informs substantive action and positive change.

• Develop effective strategies and effect positive change on the circumstances and conditions which negatively impact Black men and boys by closing the gap on negative indicators.

• Foster the development of programs and systems that will positively impact the understanding, knowledge, values and skills that enable Black men and boys to succeed in an American society.
• Develop and sustain partnerships and coalitions that reflect the needs of Black men and boys and impact systemic change.

• Develop and steward financial resources, (which exist within and external to our communities), by maximizing existing resources and continuously surfacing new sources of support from individual donors, community organizations and institutional philanthropy to supplement this effort.


The idea for this initiative emerged from a series of discussions among national organizations, philanthropists, community-based organizations, and concerned individuals who noted that a Black boy born in 2007 will be 18 years old in 2025 and there is a need for a change in paradigm for both our leadership and the people. Beginning in October 2005 with a National Conversation on Black Men and Boys co-convened by The Twenty-First Century Foundation (21CF), the NAACP Legal Education and Defense Fund, Public/Private Ventures, and the National Urban League, brought together more than 40 national and local leaders including adults and young people to assess the many challenges facing this group. At a follow-up meeting hosted by the Ford Foundation in July 2006, more than 120 participants representing 22 co-sponsoring organizations gathered to move the process forward. Attendees underscored their collective commitment to improve conditions for the generation of Black boys currently being raised and for the adults who support them.

Our Approach

The approach of the 2025 Campaign is to engage local community based organizations,
organizers, advocates, practitioners, and youth leaders and connect them with business interests, philanthropic entities, academics, as well as concerned individuals to become catalysts for an organic process for decisive action. Concurrently, we are cultivating relationships with policy
makers and power-brokers in order to find a place at the table and have a positive influence when
decisions are being made about the allocation of resources and the deployment of services within
our communities.

Focus Areas

There were five (5) areas identified as key to successfully changing outcomes for the better in
the long term:

• Economic Opportunity
• Educational Opportunity
• Engaged Fatherhood & Parenting
• Health (Physical and Mental)
• Justice, Rights, & Responsibilities

BMB Cities
  • Oakland
  • Chicago
  • Los Angeles
  • New York

Friday, December 10, 2010

Allstate: Give Back Day

As a tribute to the heroic legacy of Dr. King, Jr., Allstate will honor four individuals as Allstate Give Back Day Heroes. These four GBD heroes are African Americans from all over the nation who devoted their time and energy as silent influencers in their communities.

Allstate’s 2011 Give Back Day Heroes program honors the following silent heroes:

Rosazlia Griller - Chicago, IL

Glenda Cook - Detroit, MI

Leonard Johnson - St. Louis, MO

 Jon Wall - Atlanta, GA.

Each hero has helped to create positive, sustainable change in their communities by volunteering to address important causes like domestic violence, elementary education and mentoring at-risk youth.

Allstate Give Back Day program also encourages all Americans to be everyday heroes by volunteering locally on MLK Day 2011 (January 17), and throughout the year.

Please let me know if you want to find out more about Allstate Give Back Day heroes.

For more information, you can also visit to find videos and full profiles.

Source: Email

Saturday, December 4, 2010

When We Ruled

When We Ruled is by far the best general work on the ancient and medieval history of Black people there has ever been.

When We 
Ruled - Front CoverThis landmark publication, which is superbly illustrated with high quality photographs, maps and drawings, provides an extraordinary and cutting-edge synthesis of the archaeological data, the documentary evidence, and the historical linguistic research. It recounts the fascinating story of the origin and development of indigenous civilisations across the vast panorama of the African continent.

In particular, the author answers the key question in Black history: How much documented history is there beyond the Slave Trade, Mary Seacole, and Malcolm X? In 713 pages that question is answered again and again with a vast array of evidence that explodes the widely held view that Africans were without historical distinctions. In particular, there are ancient and medieval monuments that are still standing all over Africa. In addition, there are Black families and institutions that still possess their medieval manuscripts.

The history of Black people cannot be divorced from the history of peoples on other continents particularly Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Topic areas that have traditionally been ignored, such as Black Women's history, early African science and technology, and the two-way influences between Africa and Europe, are also discussed.

What is remarkable about this work is that for the first time it dares to connect Egypt, and its cultural affinities, with Africa and its chronological timeline within the vast chronology (nearly 90,000 years) of African achievement. It is now untenable for Egyptologists to consider themselves to be experts on Egypt without understanding the African cultural signature embedded within Ancient Egypt and its long history.

Faculty, students and parents interested in a comprehensive, critical and balanced overview of African or Black history will find no better book.


Friday, December 3, 2010


Angelique Kidjo has wrapped a banner year with a GRAMMY nomination for her new CD 'OYO' and a sold out, headlining debut concert at Carnegie Hall. It's been a landmark year full of achievements for the Benin, Africa-born singer:

* Kidjo's tenth album 'OYO', released by Razor & Tie, has just been nominated for the 2010 Best Contemporary World Music GRAMMY. 

* In a live review, NY Times praised "the brazen power of her instrument, a chest-rattling alto" and called Kidjo "a superhero." The single, Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up," features guest turns from John Legend and Bono.

* She performed at the FIFA World Cup Kickoff concert, broadcast worldwide from South Africa, along with Shakira, Alicia Keyes, The Black Eyed Peas, and others:
* She performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with Legend and The Roots on July 27.

* Razor & Tie released the EP 'iTunes Live From SoHo.'

* Her essay on the 50th anniversary of Benin's independence was published in the NY Times online:
* She traveled around Africa, fulfilling her duties as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

* She attended Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's birthday party and fund-raiser during which President Clinton adoringly introduced Angelique to the guests:

* Kidjo received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.

* She sang on the Preservation Hall benefit album with Terence Blanchard on the song "La Vie En Rose."

* The Commission of the African Union (AU) named Kidjo a Peace Ambassador.

* Kidjo appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Vancouver Olympics, the Montreux Jazz Festival and The World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures among other premiere festivals/events in 2010.

* She will speak at the 2010 TEDWomen's "Reshaping the Future" conference, Dec. 7-8, 2010, in Washington, D.C. The program highlights women as powerful innovators and architects of change.

* She received the Officier Des Arts Et Des Lettres award from the French Government.

* Her Batonga Foundation is partnering with the African Well Fund and Africare to provide hand pumps and clean water to Batonga girls in Benin.

For more information on 
Angelique Kidjo, please contact Nick Loss-Eaton ( or Lauretta Charlton ( at Shore Fire Media: 718.522.7171.

Monday, November 29, 2010

New destroyer honors a black naval pioneer

When Samuel Gravely Jr. was born in segregated Richmond 88 years ago, he never could have imagined a career as a U.S. naval officer - not to mention becoming the first black officer to command a warship and, eventually, the service's first black admiral.

Gravely died in 2004, but this month marks yet another first: The first warship named for a black admiral was commissioned over the weekend. On Wednesday, the brand-new destroyer pulled into Norfolk, its new homeport.

The guided-missile destroyer, built for about $1 billion, is the 57th in the Arleigh Burke class. Its crew of 276 is led by Cmdr. Douglas Kunzman.

As the ship made the turn toward Pier 6 at Norfolk Naval Station on Wednesday afternoon, Gravely's widow, Alma, said her husband undoubtedly would have been proud to have a ship named after him. But he probably wouldn't show it, because he was remarkably humble.

"It's really an honor to sit here and watch it come in," she said.

Gravely enlisted in the naval reserves and was soon selected for officer candidacy. He was the first black officer commissioned through a reserve officer training course. After a stint aboard a submarine chaser with an all-black crew - a way for the Navy to prove to the nation that black sailors were as competent as their white counterparts - Gravely left active service and finished his history degree at Virginia Union University.

It was a short break from what became his career. In 1949, he was recalled to active duty. He quickly rose to command four ships: the Theodore Chandler, Falgout, Taussig and Jouett. His final sea assignment was commander of the Navy's 3rd Fleet.

Alma Gravely recalled some of the early discrimination her husband faced. Once, while in Florida with the crew of a submarine chaser, he decided to accompany some enlisted crew members to an enlisted club, knowing the officers club was off- limits to black officers.

Someone at the enlisted club tried to have him arrested for impersonating an officer - a charge quickly dropped once the boat's commanding officer confirmed he was, in fact, a naval officer.

Gravely said having a ship named for her husband is the highlight of his naval career, although she also was pleased that Prince William County named a school for him.

The Gravely is the second new destroyer to make its home in Norfolk in as many days. Sitting across the pier was the Jason Dunham, named for a warrior from a more recent era. Dunham threw himself on a grenade in Iraq in 2004, an action that resulted in him becoming the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.

The Gravely arrived, aft first, as docile as a lamb, nudged into place by a tug boat. Make no mistake, though: It has the capabilities of a lion, which graces the ship's official crest. The Gravely is armed with an array of firepower: dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes and a close-in weapon system.

Kunzman, the commanding officer, touted the ship's modern, multi mission capability. But he was also mindful of the past, and the legacy Gravely left. The ship's motto, "First to Conquer," pays homage to Gravely being the "first to do so many things," he said.

And it's just flat out fun to be skipper of a brand-new ship.

"It still smells new," he said. "Like it's just out of bubble wrap. It's a brand-new Cadillac to myself and my sailors."

Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629,


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged the prejudice that prevented African Americans from pursuing careers in medicine to became the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, a distinction formerly credited to Rebecca Cole. Although little has survived to tell the story of Crumpler's life, she has secured her place in the historical record with her book of medical advice for women and children, published in 1883.

Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware, to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. An aunt in Pennsylvania, who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and may have influenced her career choice, raised her. By 1852 she had moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for the next eight years (because the first formal school for nursing only opened in 1873, she was able to perform such work without any formal training). In 1860, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College. When she graduated in 1864, Crumpler was the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873.

In her Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, she gives a brief summary of her career path: "It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of doctress of medicine."

Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the Civil War ended in 1865. Richmond, she felt, would be "a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled . . . to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored." She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen's Bureau, and missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

"At the close of my services in that city," she explained, "I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration." She lived on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, then a mostly black neighborhood. By 1880 she had moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and was no longer in active practice. Her 1883 book is based on journal notes she kept during her years of medical practice.

No photos or other images survive of Dr. Crumpler. The little we know about her comes from the introduction to her book, a remarkable mark of her achievements as a physician and medical writer in a time when very few African Americans were able to gain admittance to medical college, let alone publish. Her book is one of the very first medical publications by an African American.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tee Collins

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thank you to Dr. Barbara Collins-Brooks, daughter of Tee Collins and one of our dedicated listeners, for this "Little Known Black History Fact."

Harlem native Tee Collins was the first African-American animator to establish his own studio in New York. He was best known for his creation of the character Wanda the Witch on "Sesame Street." It was the story of a witch with a pet weasel who washed her wirey wig on Wednesday. His new animation would play on the first episode of "Sesame Street" in 1969 and would carry over into the book, “All About Sesame Street.” The favored skit would be followed by words from comedian Carol Burnett.

Collins would receive two international broadcasting awards for his work. Other skits he introduced included Nancy the Nannygoat and X is for Xylophone, though he once jokingly said, "It was hard to come up with a happy word for X."

Collins' skills with animation took him to "Sesame Street," but he originally got his start animating the Piel's Beer commercials, starring Bert and Harry Piel, in the early 1960s. He would also produce animated films in Puerto Rico, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic.

By the 1990s, Collins was still making history with his skill. His animation of "The Songhai Princess," written by Dr. Edward Robinson, introduced the first animated black princess ever on video. It was a story about Princess Nzinga, the daughter of a 15th-century Songhai Emperor, who is kidnapped from her palace by the Wicked Witch of the Mountains and rescued by her hero.

"The Songhai Princess" sold 20,000 copies and won four national awards in animation. The movie was most recently featured at the Dusable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.

Collins taught as a freelance professor for 11 years at the University of Central Florida before his death.

By: Erica Taylor, The Tom Joyner Morning Show


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

HBCUs Online

What is HBCUsOnline?

HBCUsOnline is a unique education services company, inspired and founded by Tom Joyner. HBCUsOnline proudly partners with select Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to provide access to accredited online degree programs, educational resources, student support and empowerment tools to help you be successful.

How is HBCUsOnline Different?
Now more than ever, where you get your degree matters. Many of today’s online education providers fail to adequately invest in academic rigor, relevance and student success, which leaves far too many with little or nothing to show for their experience except debt and frustration. HBCUsOnline provides a better alternative and a better value! We embrace and provide each student with the “community of support” that has long been the spirit and cornerstone of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We have deliberately combined the best of what HBCUs have to offer – tradition, support, a strong alumni network and a rich heritage – with the convenience, flexibility and value of technology, all of which gives you the opportunity to make a better choice for your online education.

What is a Community of Support?

The culture of HBCUs is rooted in providing the support each student needs to succeed. HBCUsOnline is unique because it builds upon this legacy and customizes support to enhance your success in an online learning environment. Student Support PlusSM and “The Yard” are unique features of HBCUsOnline that are designed for you. Student Support Plus is your personalized program for success and “The Yard” is a virtual community that brings campus life straight to your computer. Find out more about these dynamic offerings on HBCUsOnline by signing up today to access more information!

How Does HBCUsOnline work?

The HBCUsOnline process is easy and personable. It all starts when you register free of charge to have access to this full website. Once you register with us, you’ll be able to search degree programs and schools as well as view other exciting content. In addition, an enrollment specialist will be there to help you to address any questions or help you complete the application and enrollment process. Once you are successfully enrolled in classes, you will be assigned a Student Support Plus advocate who will work with you to develop your customized student success plan. Your Student Support Plus advocate will also offer continuous, ongoing support throughout your online program – right up to the day you earn you degree. “Our mission is your success.”

Sign up today.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Children's Book: Loving Me

"Two of the most important books your son or daughter will ever read!"

               Loving Me                                  Boy! I Am Loving Me 
Click Cover For A Preview!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

M.K. Asante

M.K. Asante
M.K. Asante is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and professor who thePhiladelphia Inquirer calls "a rare, remarkable talent that brings to mind the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance."
The author of three celebrated books, Asante is the recipient of the 2009 Langston Hughes Award. His latest book, It's Bigger Than Hip Hop, was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "An empowering book that moves you to action and to question status quo America."
His other books are Beautiful. And Ugly Tooand Like Water Running Off My Back, winner of the Jean Corrie Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
An acclaimed filmmaker, Asante directed The Black Candle, a film he co-wrote with renowned poet Maya Angelou who also narrates the prize-winning film. He wrote and produced the film 500 Years Later, winner of five international film festival awards as well as the Breaking the Chains award from the United Nations. He also produced the multi award-winning film Motherland.
Asante studied at the University of London, earned a BA from Lafayette College, and an MFA from the UCLA School of Film and Television.
A dynamic speaker, Asante has presented in twenty-five countries as well as throughout the United States at hundreds of colleges, universities, libraries, conferences, and festivals.
He has been featured on numerous TV and radio programs including the CBS Early ShowNBC NewsTom Joyner Morning Show and NPR. Asante’s essays on music, politics, and culture have been published in USA TodayHuffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Asante is a tenured professor of creative writing and film in the Department of English and Language Arts at Morgan State University.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This young man will make you Proud!!!

Booker T. Washington Highschool graduate Deonte Bridges' Valedictorian speech

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Black Candle

The Black Candle is a landmark, vibrant documentary film that uses Kwanzaa as a vehicle to explore and celebrate the African-American experience.
Narrated by world renowned poet Maya Angelou and directed by award-winning author and filmmaker M.K. Asante, The Black Candle is an extraordinary, inspirational story about the struggle and triumph of family, community, and culture.
Filmed across the United States, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, The Black Candle is a timely illumination on why the seven principles of Kwanzaa (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) are relevant today.
The first feature film on Kwanzaa, The Black Candle traces the holiday’s growth from the first celebration in 1966 to its present-day reality as a global holiday embraced by over 20 million celebrants.
With vivid cinematography and an all star cast that features NFL Legend Jim Brown, Hip Hop icon Chuck D, Kwanzaa's founder Dr. Maulana Karenga, artist Synthia Saint James and many others, The Black Candle is more than a film about a holiday: it’s a celebration of a people!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Super Soaker

IN MARCH 2003, the independent inventor Lonnie Johnson faced a roomful of high-level military scientists at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Johnson had traveled there from his home in Atlanta, seeking research funding for an advanced heat engine he calls the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, or JTEC (pronounced “jay-tek”). At the time, the JTEC was only a set of mathematical equations and the beginnings of a prototype, but Johnson had made the tantalizing claim that his device would be able to turn solar heat into electricity with twice the efficiency of a photovoltaic cell, and the Office of Naval Research wanted to hear more.

Projected onto the wall was a PowerPoint collage summing up some highlights of Johnson’s career: risk assessment he’d done for the space shuttle Atlantis; work on the nuclear power source for NASA’sGalileo spacecraft; engineering help on the tests that led to the first flight of the B-2 stealth bomber; the development of an energy-dense ceramic battery; and the invention of a remarkable, game-changing weapon that had made him millions of dollars—a weapon that at least one of the men in the room, the father of two small children, recognized immediately as the Super Soaker squirt gun.
Mild-mannered and bespectacled, Johnson opened his presentation by describing the idea behind the JTEC. The device, he explained, would split hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons, and in so doing would convert heat into electricity. Most radically, it would do so without the help of any moving parts. Johnson planned to tell his audience that the JTEC could produce electricity so efficiently that it might make solar power competitive with coal, and perhaps at last fulfill the promise of renewable solar energy. But before he reached that part of his presentation, Richard Carlin, then the head of the Office of Naval Research’s mechanics and energy conversion division, rose from his chair and dismissed Johnson’s brainchild outright. The whole premise for the device relied on a concept that had proven impractical, Carlin claimed, citing a 1981 report co-written by his mentor, the highly regarded electrochemist Robert Osteryoung. Go read the Osteryoung report, Carlin said, and you will see.
End of meeting.
Concerned about what he might have missed in the literature, Johnson returned home and read the inch-thick report, concluding that it addressed an approach quite different from his own. Carlin, it seems, had rejected the concept before fully comprehending it. (When I reached Carlin by phone recently, he said he did not remember the meeting, but he is familiar with the JTEC concept and now thinks that the “principles are fine.”) Nor was Carlin alone at the time. Wherever Johnson pitched the JTEC, the reaction seemed to be the same: no engine could convert heat to electricity at such high efficiency rates without the use of moving parts.
Johnson believed otherwise. He felt that what had doomed his presentation to the Office of Naval Research—and others as well—was a collective failure of imagination. It didn’t help that he was best known as a toy inventor, nor that he was working outside the usual channels of the scientific establishment. Johnson was stuck in a Catch-22: to prove his idea would work, he needed a more robust prototype, one able to withstand the extreme heat of concentrated sunlight. But he couldn’t build such a prototype without research funding. What he needed was a new pitch. Instead of presenting the JTEC as an engine, he would frame it as a high-temperature hydrogen fuel cell, a device that produces electricity chemically rather than mechanically, by stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons. The description was only partially apt: though both devices use similar components, fuel cells require a constant supply of hydrogen; the JTEC, by contrast, contains a fixed amount of hydrogen sealed in a chamber, and needs only heat to operate. Still, in the fuel-cell context, the device’s lack of moving parts would no longer be a conceptual stumbling block.
Indeed, Johnson had begun trying out this new pitch two months before his naval presentation, in a written proposal he submitted to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s peer-review panel. The reaction, when it came that May, couldn’t have been more different. “Funded just like that,” he told me, snapping his fingers, “because they understood fuel cells—the technology, the references, the literature. The others couldn’t get past this new engine concept.” The Air Force gave Johnson $100,000 for membrane research, and in August 2003 sent a program manager to Johnson’s Atlanta laboratory. “We make a presentation about the JTEC, and he says”—here Johnson, who is black, puts on a Bill-Cosby-doing-a-white-guy voice—“‘Wow, this is exciting!’” A year later, after Johnson had proved he could make a ceramic membrane capable of withstanding temperatures above 400 degrees Celsius, the Air Force gave him an additional $750,000 in funding.
The key to the JTEC is the second law of thermodynamics. Simply put, the law says that temperature differences tend to even out—for instance, when a hot mug of coffee disperses its heat into the cool air of a room. As the heat levels of the mug and the room come into balance, there is a transfer of energy.
Work can be extracted from that transfer. The most common way of doing this is with some form of heat engine. A steam engine, for example, converts heat into electricity by using steam to spin a turbine. Steam engines—powered predominantly by coal, but also by natural gas, nuclear materials, and other fuels—generate 90 percent of all U.S. electricity. But though they have been refined over the centuries, most are still clanking, hissing, exhaust-spewing machines that rely on moving parts, and so are relatively inefficient and prone to mechanical breakdown.
Johnson’s latest JTEC prototype, which looks like a desktop model for a next-generation moonshine still, features two fuel-cell-like stacks, or chambers, filled with hydrogen gas and connected by steel tubes with round pressure gauges. Where a steam engine uses the heat generated by burning coal to create steam pressure and move mechanical elements, the JTEC uses heat (from the sun, for instance) to expand hydrogen atoms in one stack. The expanding atoms, each made up of a proton and an electron, split apart, and the freed electrons travel through an external circuit as electric current, charging a battery or performing some other useful work. Meanwhile the positively charged protons, also known as ions, squeeze through a specially designed proton-exchange membrane (one of the JTECelements borrowed from fuel cells) and combine with the electrons on the other side, reconstituting the hydrogen, which is compressed and pumped back into the hot stack. As long as heat is supplied, the cycle continues indefinitely.
“Lonnie’s using temperature differences to create pressure gradients,” says Paul Werbos, an energy expert and program director of the National Science Foundation. “Only instead of using those pressure gradients to move an axle or a wheel, he’s forcing ions through a membrane.” Werbos, who spent months vetting the JTEC and eventually awarded Johnson’s team a $75,000 research grant in 2006, describes the JTEC as “a fundamentally new way, a fundamentally well-grounded way, to convert heat to electricity.” Regarding its potential to revolutionize energy production on a global scale, he says, “It has a darn good chance of being the best thing on Earth.”
JOHNSON IS A MEMBER of what seems to be a vanishing breed: the self-invented inventor. Born the third of six children in Mobile, Alabama, in 1949, he came into the world a black male in the Deep South during the days of lawful segregation. His father, David, who died in 1984, was a World War II veteran and a civilian driver for nearby Air Force bases. According to his mother, Arline, who is 86 and still lives in Mobile (in a house remodeled with Super Soaker profits), the family was poor but happy. All eight lived in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house near Mobile Bay, in a neighborhood then being bisected by the construction of Interstate 10.
As a boy, Johnson was quiet and curious, and early on, he developed a fascination with how things worked. “Lonnie tore up his sister’s baby doll to see what made the eyes close,” his mother recalls. As he grew older, he began making things, including rockets powered by fuel cooked up in his mother’s saucepans. At 13, he bolted a discarded lawn-mower engine onto a homemade go-cart and took it atop the I-10 construction site—only to have a bemused policeman escort him back down. It was around then that Johnson learned that “engineers were the people who did the kind of things that I wanted to do.”
It was hardly an obvious career path: then, as now, the profession was dominated by whites. (As recently as 2004, only 1.6 percent of the engineering doctorates awarded in the United States went to blacks.) In high school, a standardized test from the Junior Engineering Technical Society informed Johnson that he had little aptitude for engineering; but he persevered and, as a senior, became the first student from his all-black high school ever to enter the society’s regional engineering fair. The fair was held at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, just five years after then-Governor George Wallace had tried, in 1963, to physically block two black students from enrolling there. Johnson’s entry in the competition was a creation he called Linex: a compressed-air-powered robot assembled from electromagnetic switches he’d salvaged from an old jukebox, and solenoid valves he’d fashioned out of copper tubing and rubber stoppers. The finished product wowed the judges, who awarded him first prize: $250 and a plaque. Unsurprisingly, university officials didn’t trumpet the news that a black boy had won top honors. “The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition,” Johnson remembers, “was ‘Goodbye, and y’all drive safe, now.’”
Johnson went on to win math and Air Force ROTC scholarships to Tuskegee University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. He joined the Air Force in 1975 and subsequently held jobs at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Strategic Air Command—solid, respectable positions that made him a part of the scientific establishment. But at each stop, he felt that his creativity was stifled, and in 1987, at the age of 38, he could take it no longer. He would go into business for himself, he decided, focusing on his own projects, which included a thermodynamic heat pump, a centrifugal-force engine, and a pressure-action water gun. “All I needed was one to hit,” he says, “and I’d be fine.”
The idea for the water gun had come to him one weekend afternoon in 1982, while he was tinkering with an idea for an environmentally friendly heat pump that would use water instead of Freon. He’d built a prototype pump, attached some rubber tubing, and brought it into a bathroom. Aiming the nozzle at the tub, he turned it on, and produced a blast of water so powerful that the mere wind from the spray ruffled the curtains. This, he thought, would make a great water gun. It took Johnson seven uncertain and stressful years, but he acquired the patents and eventually found a company interested in manufacturing his Super Soaker: the Larami Corporation, which licensed the rights to the gun in a deal that would ultimately make Johnson rich.
Hoping to offer society something more significant than enhanced squirt-gun firepower, Johnson began plowing his Super Soaker profits into energy-related R&D. While continuing to work on mechanical devices such as his heat pump, he also studied battery technology. When what he taught himself about electrochemistry collided with his longtime obsession with the second law of thermodynamics, Johnson had his eureka moment: why not use temperature differences rather than a chemical reaction to force the flow of ions through a cell? The JTEC concept was born.
Today, Johnson and his family live in Atlanta’s upscale Ansley Park neighborhood. The business he launched more than two decades ago, Johnson Research and Development Company, now employs two dozen people, including designers, marketers, and research scientists. Once again, however, Johnson faces financial worries. “There was a time in my life,” he says, “when I was independently wealthy.” But that time has passed: Super Soaker profits have eroded thanks to a host of knockoffs, and now bring in only about a third of his company’s operating budget. For the rest, he relies on grants and commissions—and in the aftermath of the dot-com bust and the recent economic crisis, they’ve been drying up. He’s begun borrowing money to keep his research going—and he’s betting much of it, millions of dollars in all, on the JTEC.
IN THE WINTER of 2008, Johnson received a promising call from Karl Littau, a materials scientist with the Palo Alto Research Center (known as PARC), a subsidiary of Xerox. PARC, which gave the world the laser printer, Ethernet, and many other groundbreaking technologies, had expanded into alternative-energy research, and this had led Littau to the JTEC. Like Paul Werbos, Littau initially feared that the device sounded too good to be true, but he and several other PARC scientists set up elaborate three-dimensional computer models to analyze fluidics and heat-flow behavior in the JTECunder various conditions, and they came away from those experiments, he says, “really impressed.” Littau, like Werbos, is now a convert. The JTEC, he says, is “a very clever way to extract energy from a heat engine … It’s incredibly elegant.”
When I spoke to Littau, he ticked off the potential advantages of the JTEC over typical heat engines: no moving parts, which means the engine is more reliable and virtually silent; the safety of hydrogen, which is essentially benign (unlike, say, Freon); and the lack of waste produced (the JTEC gives off no carbon or—unlike a fuel cell—even water, which, although environmentally harmless, can corrode equipment). All of these advantages mean longer-lasting performance and potentially higher energy-conversion efficiencies.
Commercial photovoltaic solar cells convert approximately 20 percent of received solar energy into electricity. The best solar-energy systems today—thermal-power plants that concentrate the sun’s heat to drive turbines—operate at a rate of about 30 percent efficiency. The JTEC, Johnson claims, could double that figure, cutting the cost of producing solar power in half from its current average of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour, and making it competitive with coal.
“There’s a lot of debate in Washington about carbon emissions and energy,” Paul Werbos says—“about coal, nuclear power, and oil, what I call the three horsemen of the apocalypse. If we can cut the cost of solar energy in half, it becomes possible to escape from the three horsemen. The importance of this is just unbelievable.”
But having wowed PARC, Johnson is now wrestling once again with the difficulties of working within the confines of the scientific establishment. PARC wants to publish a paper about the JTEC in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, both to provide legitimacy and to encourage members of the scientific community to advance the technologies involved. But Johnson is unconvinced. “Peer review is fine,” he says, “as long as you’re making incremental improvements to a technology.” But Johnson dreams of advancing by leaps and bounds.
Adding to Johnson’s worries is tension with PARC over intellectual-property rights. Only recently did Johnson, with much reluctance, give PARC permission to file for patent protection for the problems solved in its lab. After more than two decades as his own boss, Johnson isn’t sure how much ownership interest—and potential profit—he is willing to give up. “All of a sudden, I have other people inventing stuff that I don’t have control over anymore,” Johnson says. “They could put patents in place for things I would need to implement in my engine. I’d have to pay them for my own idea!”
LAST YEAR, I VISITED the four-acre commercial property that Johnson owns on the south side of downtown Atlanta. Wearing pleated khakis and a long-sleeved polo shirt with a turtleneck underneath, Johnson took me on a tour of a meticulously refurbished three-story brick loft space featuring soaring ceilings and antique wood floors. Johnson intends to transform the building into a high-tech manufacturing center that will train and employ workers from the area; however, because of research delays and the recent economic downturn, those plans are on hold.
Until he can scale up, Johnson is instead leasing his beautiful loft space to a city agency, while he and his employees—including a handful of scientists with doctorates in chemistry, materials science, and engineering—hunker down in a low-slung, windowless warehouse across the parking lot. It’s a no-frills space, with galvanized electrical conduit descending from the ceiling through gaps where acoustic tiles are missing. On one wall of his office is a promotional poster created by the retail chain Target that features Johnson’s face amid a pantheon of 19th- and 20th-century African American inventors. Along another wall is a row of plaques commemorating a dozen of Johnson’s 100-odd patents, including those for his water-pressure heat pump, his ceramic battery, hair rollers that dry and set without heat, a diaper that plays a musical nursery-rhyme alarm when the baby is wet, and the electrochemical conversion system at the heart of the JTEC. And hanging crooked above his desk is a cheap black frame that contains an inspirational quote that has been attributed to Calvin Coolidge. Under the headingPRESS ON, it reads:
 Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
After we toured the office cubicles, Johnson swiped a card to unlock a door, and we entered a cavernous laboratory abuzz with fluorescent fixtures and thrumming with high-tech equipment. We stepped across a sticky mat, meant to grab dust from our shoes, and followed a yellow-paint path across the warehouse floor, past shelves of chemicals, airtight glove boxes, and banks of machines bristling with wires, charging and discharging batteries. Technicians in long blue lab coats and protective goggles milled about. Some of the equipment stations were housed beneath plastic clean-room tents topped with large fans and aluminum ductwork that snaked off toward the ceiling. The lab looked like a disheveled, family-garage version of a computer-microchip factory, and the resemblance wasn’t coincidental: to develop his proton-exchange membrane and ceramic batteries, Johnson has borrowed processes developed by the semiconductor industry for depositing materials, often atom by atom, onto various substrates. Beaming as he showed me his latest acquisition—a pricey-looking X-ray photoelectron spectrometer that lets him analyze a material’s atomic makeup—Johnson was clearly in his element.