From Slave to Inventor

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. Please join me each day for a new fact.

Number FOUR

Recently I’ve learned about a former slave who was perhaps this area’s first black millionaire. Andrew Jackson Beard, born in 1849, grew up a slave in Jefferson County. After gaining emancipation at 15, he became a farmer. However, farming did not appeal to Beard. After a while, he began working for the Alabama and Chattanooga railroad. Several reports state he lost a leg and a couple fingers due to the dangerous work of coupling cars (where a worker would stand between the cars and guide the link into a coupler pocket as the cars came together).  Whether these reports are true or not, it’s no secret that this work was risky. According to the African-American Registry, a website that promotes black history education, “Few railroad men kept all their fingers, many lost arms and hands. And, many were caught between cars and crushed to death during the hazardous split-second operation.”

Beard invented what would become known as the “Jenny” coupler. His invention took away the need for a man to stand between the uncoupled cars. A patent was issued for the device on November 23, 1897.  Beard is also credited with inventing a rotary engine and a plow. He also dabbled in real estate. The book “True Tales of Birmingham” states his inventions made him a rich man, and he is thought to be Jefferson County’s first black millionaire.

Unfortunately, Beard became penniless after suffering several losses. He died in 1921 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. 

Andrew Jackson Beard

Andrew Jackson Beard

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