The Black Engineers Who Opened Up The Computer Revolution

23:06 minutes

Black Lives Matter protest
Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on Black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Charlton McIlwain

Charlton McIlwain is the author of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (Oxford University Press, 2019). He’s also a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up, the magnificence of mucus. Yes, it really is amazing stuff. You will come away with a new appreciation of it. It’s snot what you think. But first, in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the worldwide web was first being developed, all sorts of hardware and software were being created for the new network. And there were groups of African-American engineers and hobbyists working to connect and bring black communities online. The Universal Black Pages was one product, a directory of black content. Afro Link was a software package that was like a Wikipedia database of information about Africa.

In his new book, my next guest tells the stories of these black pioneers of the early internet. And he also talks about how this all connects to present day digital networks, like Black Twitter and Black Lives Matter hashtag. Charlton McElwain is a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He’s also author of this book, Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. And you can read an excerpt of the book on our website at ScienceFriday.com/blacksoftware. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: And I want to ask our listeners if they listened– if they used the Universal Black Pages or Afro Link in the ’90s. Give us a call if you did. Our number is 844-724-8255. 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us at @scifri if you ever used the Universal Black Pages or Afro Link in the ’90s. Charlton, let me begin with your book looks at black engineers and developers and hobbyists who were active when the world wide web was first coming online. What got you interested in these stories?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Well, I started with Black Lives Matter, and that’s where this journey began. I wanted to understand this new movement. I wanted to understand its digital underpinnings, and I really wanted to understand how they accomplished something that no one has managed to do since the late 1960s, which was to catapult racial issues and particularly, issues about black people’s devastation at the hands of the criminal justice system back on to the public agenda.

So I tried and I started to go looking for the origins of Black Lives Matter. And that led me back to the ’90s where this group of pioneers I found. Then that led me back to the ’80s, ’70s, eventually the ’60s, where this book and this story ultimately turned out to be what was in black software.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about black software. What does that term mean? How did it get started?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Black software really came from a chance meeting between a guy named William Morrell, who was in Boston and owned a computer store in Cambridge, and Kamal Al Mansour, who came from Los Angeles and had just begun what he had called black software to really intervene in what he saw in the software commercial area at that time, which was not people like him.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And these engineers and developers, they weren’t building an entirely new internet, right? They were adding pieces onto it.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: They were adding pieces onto it, and I like to say, they were building. If we think about what the internet is– and I think, in history, so many times, we get hung up on the hardware, the software, the folks who invented and built the material infrastructure. But the internet, as we now know it and as it has existed for a while, is social and it’s powered by human beings and content. And black folks were at the leading edge of that in the ’90s and even a little bit before the ’80s.

IRA FLATOW: Would it be fair to call them the hidden figures of black software?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: They are. In many, many ways, they are hidden. Their stories have that they once were told it was for a moment in the early ’90s, but rarely since. And the narrative that we get and what we know particularly about black folks, the internet, digital media, particularly in the 1990s, is this term about the digital divide, which really, I think, hamstrung our perceptions of black people and hid away the fact that there were many, many African-Americans online and really, at the leading edge of what came to be known as the world wide web.

IRA FLATOW: Let me pursue that a little bit. In your book, you talk about a developer named Kamal Al Mansour, who, at times, was creating something called CPTime and Afro Link. What were these pieces of software?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: They essentially were software that reflected black people. And in many ways, if we think about old what we knew as clip art that circulated in the early days that always looked at figures, and what you saw were white folks that were pictured. And Kamal looked out on that landscape and said, hey, I don’t see myself. I don’t see African people. I don’t see people who are doing and thinking about the things that I do, people from the culture that I know. And he wanted to rectify that. And CPTime was his first foray into that journey of what became quite a lucrative business.

IRA FLATOW: And CPTime stands– CP is for Clip Art of images of African-Americans and Africa, all kinds of images. And in fact, we talked to Kamal Al Mansour earlier this week, and in this clip, he talks about how and why he developed Afro Link and CPTime, which I say stands for Colored People’s Time.


KAMAL AL MANSOUR: My next step was actually to just start building data. I started building notebooks. I started sending letters, if you can imagine, to ministries in Africa to universities, development orgs, the Organization for African Unity. As the data came in, I would transpose it, try to logically organize it, and then convert it to digital form. And I run across a segment on PBS about an interactive multimedia software program called Culture. And so naturally I’m intrigued because now I’m seeing data move. I’m seeing animation, I’m seeing graphics. I’m seeing an extension of what I’m doing. So I’m intrigued by that.

The developer of this program was a professor from Princeton. And so I’m sitting there watching. I’m locked in. And I see some of Michelangelo’s sculptures, I think David. I see some Greek mythology. I’m not seeing pyramids. I’m not seeing [INAUDIBLE] sculpture. I’m not seeing anything black. And so I’m puzzled as to how it could be called culture. I mean, not even the Great Wall, nothing from any place else in the world, but Europe.

And it’s funny because the name for the bulletin board system and the name for my clip art, CPTime, about a third of my audience gave me a lot of flack for that, because they said I was perpetuating the stereotype of CPTime and black people always being late. And so I flipped it around, and I said, it’s our time as people of color to be online. It’s our time as people of color to be technical. It’s our time as people of color to be digital and have access to information.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting stuff that he talked about, Kamal Al Mansour earlier this week.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Indeed. That was the story, a fascinating story that, of course, is in black style software.

IRA FLATOW: And the worldwide web was around for a while before users knew it existed. How did these developers get the word out about black software?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: A lot of it had to do with prior systems, and so the bulletin board systems that came before and networks built on the bulletin boards on early networking sites where black folks were. And so you had a tension as the web came online, and folks who were used to the ways that we networked and built community online in the 1980s and now the new very public, very open, even much more accessible world wide web.

And so people decided what platform they wanted to use and which was easier, which allowed them to do more things. Some said I’m not going forward and really left things off. But for those that did move forward, word about the web really came from those early networks that already existed.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I want to read a quote from your book that you laid down the– you say, “The fact that I had myself encountered a whole group of people whom our internet, computing, and media histories had never known, much less remembered, let me to ask a more fundamental question. What is and has been black people’s relationship to the internet and computing technology?”

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Yeah, that was a big question for me, and it was when I found these folks who, I will say, were not hard to find. And so I began to ask, why did no one else find them, up to this point? Why was no one else telling their story or had told their story? And I began to think about there being some more overarching, broader reason for that, and that’s what got me looking back before the ’90s into the ’80s and ultimately back to the ’60s, where the story about civil rights and the story about the development of computing really headed for a head on clash.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What is the legacy of– well, let me ask first about eventually, big companies like AOL and CompuServe, if you’re old enough to remember, they did catch on to black software.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Yeah, they did catch on, and I would say they even pioneered. So one of the stories that I tell was really– is about NetNoir and the fact that at a time when companies like AOL were just small companies, not yet to really hit it big, and looking for what would bring people, users, to this new thing called the internet and called the World Wide Web, what would get people interested in it? And it was fascinating to me that to know that a company like NetNoir, that black content, black software, is one of the original things that they invested in. And that brought people in the droves to the online site.

IRA FLATOW: Did they have to be talked into this?


IRA FLATOW: They knew they–

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: They knew people liked black culture. Right? That’s been around forever, particularly around entertainment and the things that we really get into. And so we’ve known that for many, many, many years that black culture sells, and it sells not only to black people, but to everyone.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I can understand that because we talk about people loving science, and they really do.


IRA FLATOW: If you just give it to them, they’ll– and same thing with black culture.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Absolutely. You put it out there, and people run with it. They love it.

IRA FLATOW: And so did it take off from there?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: It really did. It exploded and exploded in many ways beyond what the founders could do with it. It changed forms in many different ways and ultimately got sold, made the founders a lot of money, and persisted for quite a while.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about the black culture with Charlton McIlwain, who is author of Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice, From the Afro Net to Black Lives Matter. Let’s have some callers in, and a caller who says that he’s the designer, calling in, the designer of NetNoir. We’ll put him on as a caller. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the black pioneers who worked to develop the World Wide Web in its early days. And my guest is Charlton McIlwain, professor of Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, author of the book, Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice From Afro Net to Black Lives Matter. Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Lettie in Berkeley, California.

LETTIE: Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Just turn your radio down.

LETTIE: OK. OK, can you hear me?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, I can. Go ahead.

LETTIE: OK, wonderful. So my name is Lettie McGuire. I’m one of the founders of NetNoir. And I worked there as the head programmer, programming all the AOL website, using Rain Man software, as well as the World Wide Website that we launched when the World Wide Web came into being. And I was also the creative director, so I designed all the graphics, and along with a team. And it’s really great to hear this show talking about the work that we did. It’s wonderful to hear.

IRA FLATOW: Do you consider yourself a so-called hidden figure?

LETTIE: Definitely, yeah. But I’m also self-prescribed probably hidden because I am– as most programmers, even though I’m a black woman, I’m a total nerd. And so I’m probably more of an introvert than an extrovert, so I think that might be in common with some other programmers and designers as well.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Charlton, did you know?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: I knew the name and I recall David talking about many of the other folks who were really influential in putting Net Noir together. And so I’m glad to hear and meet you, so to speak, here across the airwaves. And I think– you say these hidden figures. I think one of the things that calls attention to are individual people whose stories have been lost, but I think it also just really overshadows a moment that we can never get back in terms of living it and hearing it as it was lived by these folks who were on the ground and doing these really big, great things.

IRA FLATOW: Lettie, can you give us an idea of what a day of yours was like back then and how difficult it was to create what you did?

LETTIE: Yes, so basically, it was a very small community of– in San Francisco. We worked in called Multimedia Gulch around South Park. It’s this little round park. And at first, we all worked for free, and [AUDIO OUT]. We worked out of our home at first before we got an office. And then we were surprised that our channel became very, very popular, not just with African-American community, but all races and worldwide. And we became one of the most popular AOL channels online.

And I guess, I’d get there early in the morning, and if there was a deadline, we’d sleep under our desks, probably like a lot of small tech startups today. And yeah, David Ellington was the CEO, along with Malcolm CasSelle, David Ellington is the grandson of Duke Ellington. And let’s see. I was really inspired by my brother, Hugh McGuire, who was one of the first African-American people to get a PhD in computer science at a very young age at Stanford. And he taught as a professor for a long time in Michigan. He’s now at UC Santa Barbara.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I want to ask you, Charlton and Lettie, if you’ll stay with us a little bit. In the early days and even today, is the internet and how these online platforms operate, are they just a reflection of the issues, the biases, the problems that we have in brick and mortar world today? And the same kinds of issues have been moved online.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: In many ways, they have, in terms of our biases, how we live, the communities that we bring ourselves together around– excuse me. And so what we’ve done, particularly as social media really dominates and the online world dominates our lives, is that it’s no more just a portal or a virtual community. It is life. And so our biases, racism, the structural elements of racism, as we’ve known it historically, really are playing out in the online environment.

IRA FLATOW: Lettie, did you expect this kind of reflection online of real life and the brick and mortar world?

LETTIE: Yes, definitely. I was a self-taught programmer, and later on, I went to college. I taught myself how to do programming and design basically. And then years later, I went to Harvard, and I took a class by Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who taught that schools and online communities echo society, and vice versa. And that was definitely the case.

I think NetNoir, because it was one of the first online communities, it was extremely diverse. A large part of our membership were white people. And I think– but we didn’t advertise that. We were just really happy that that happened. And we became so popular, I think we were the most visited website in the world at one point. And my design and programming was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine. I believe that was– I can’t remember what year that was.

But it was really exciting during that time where all groups accepted us, I feel, at the time. And I think now, maybe, the gap has grown bigger, I think, society, brick and mortar, and online. It seems that way, although I think that the internet is good and bad, right?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Lettie, thank you for taking time to– wow, it’s great to have you talk about the early days here, and for listening to us, and joining in a conversation.

LETTIE: Thank you for bringing this in today. It was wonderful, and thank you for writing the book. Thank you.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Thank you, Lettie.

IRA FLATOW: Charlton McIlwain is with us, continuing our conversation about the black software. We think of the internet as this open place where you can freely surf from one place to another. And you did a study that showed how there is a certain pattern to how people navigate online. Tell us about that.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Yeah, there is. As we go across the web, we do a few things or one of two ways. We go to where we know we want to go. And we have a site, and we navigate there. Most of us, however, get there as a result of an intermediary, either links on a web page. So we’re at ScienceFriday.com, and that sends us to another website, and we follow that way. Often and most frequently, search engines tell us where to go– Google and often– more often– social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, et cetera.

So the study I did there basically showed that we navigate in very segregated patterns. That is, when we look at websites that feature racialized content versus those that do not, that people tend to navigate to one or the other predominantly. And I was interested in how these patterns might tell us something about how inequality shows itself on the web. And we talked about having offline brick and mortar world that we live in ported into online environments. I was very curious, what does inequality look like online? And this was one of those cues to me that when you have racial segregation, that’s one clue about something that’s very foundational to racial inequality.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the major themes of your book is how technologies and racial justice intersect. The most recent example is how Twitter is being used for the Black Lives Matter movement. Can online media translate into offline movements?

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: I think so. I, however, want to– I have to get people to sort of temper their optimism sometimes and say, we look at a movement like Black Lives Matter, who, much of its work was done through online tools, and then we expect a whole host of outcomes in the, quote unquote, “offline world.” But digital tools, the online movement is about attracting a certain type of thing that’s commensurate with the tool, which is attention and attention to a particular story. And that’s where Black Lives Matter really succeeded.

IRA FLATOW: Right. I have one last question about that. In your book, you had a question about how these technologies can be used for racial justice, and I want to quote from there. “Will our current or future technology tools ever enable us to outrun white supremacy?”

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: That is the question. And I ended the book that way because I’m still unsure. And the other book that’s told within black software is that story about what happened in the ’70s and the ’60s that made me raise this question. And that is, for all that we are able to do, for all that the courageous folks with Black Lives Matter and other activists, journalists, storytellers online have been able to accomplish, we see very quickly how much the powers that be curtail that kind of movement. And it leaves me wondering exactly how far we will be able to go.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a good place to leave it because it’s a very thought provoking book.


IRA FLATOW: Charles McIlwain is a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU and author of the book, Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice From the Afro Net to Black Lives Matter. And you can read an excerpt of the book on our website at ScienceFriday.com/blacksoftware. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Thank you so much.

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