A Black Internet Timeline

Since I started and finished Halt and Catch Fire, I’ve been thinking about the Internet and how we got here. But in all my research and reminiscing, I could only find White stories. Didn’t Black people use the Internet in the 90’s? I could have sworn I saw them using computers and modems.

Well, after some extreme Googling, I found this by William R. Murrell, III, who runs blacksoftware.com: “a timeline of event [sic] originally documented in 1999 when African Americans began their move to get aboard the information superhighway Internet.”

The Internet pioneers weren’t all White and there were some remarkable feats achieved by Black technologists such as:

Arthur McGee

He emailed lists of dial-up modem phone numbers to local BBS’s (bulletin board systems) owned by Black people as well as the addresses of HBC’s (historically Black colleges) and universities. It was the first document of its kind—a “network of interconnected system operators (sysops) in the Black Online Diaspora”.

Clarence “Skip” Ellis

The first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science, back in 1969. His Ph.D. dissertation on “Probabilistic Languages and Automata” analysed programming languages and their translators, which, according to @bedstuyguy, suggested that Ellis “anticipated some characteristics of search engines, as well as of artificial intelligence”.

For example, he imagines a library information retrieval system that reminds us of a Google search, ranking documents by probability of relevance to the search criteria.

While at MIT, he also worked on research related to ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Kamal Al Mansour

In 1990, Al Mansour introduced AfroLink, a software platform and web portal for Black people. He was inspired by something he watched on PBS in 1988:

I was sitting up late one night watching PBS, when I saw a segment on an interactive multimedia software program titled Culture, developed by a professor at Princeton University. It featured images, animation and text. What absolutely fascinated me was seeing the use of this technology, but more so that it was called Culture but did not feature anything about Kemet, or any Black people whatsoever.

It was an early success before accessibility and data costs made accessing the Web easier than installing and running Web-based software.

My only concern with the timeline is the lack of women mentioned. There was a paragraph on the importance of “Women Sysops” and the late Idette Vaughan. Still, an interesting timeline and a good place to start if you want to see the basis of Black technologism on the Internet.

You should also read Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet, to Black Lives Matter by Professor Charlton MciIwain.

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