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VIDEO: 'Freedom Riders' of technology honored

African-American tech pioneers showcased at City Hall

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Three prominent African-American Silicon Valley technologists were honored at Palo Alto City Hall Monday evening, sparking what some called the beginning of mainstream recognition of black achievements.

The three men, who created businesses in Palo Alto and have lived or worked in the area since the 1950s, were recognized by city leaders at the opening of a new exhibition at City Hall, "Soul of Technology -- 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology." The exhibition of 12 panels containing the images and achievements of the 50 leaders in "yearbook style" will be installed on Wednesday and remain on display through February for Black History Month.

Palo Altans Roy Clay Sr., Dr. Frank Greene and the late Ron Jones were honored for pioneering work in Silicon Valley. Clay and Greene overcame racism and negative stereotyping dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks had newly won the right to attend public schools and universities.

Clay worked for Lawrence Radiation Laboratory programming atomic simulations in 1958 on the most advanced computers in the world. He developed Hewlett-Packard's computer division and was responsible for the development of HP's first computer, the HP 2116. His work for venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers led to funding Intel, Compaq and Tandem. He was Palo Alto's first African-American vice-mayor and council member. He created the first electronic-equipment-safety-testing device to be certified by Underwriters Laboratory that is still the standard today. His company, ROD-L Electronics, hired 50 East Palo Altans for technology positions.

Greene holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and has taught at Stanford University, serving as assistant chair of electrical engineering. At Fairchild Semiconductor, he developed and won a patent for the most advanced semiconductor memory at the time. He formed Technology Development Corp, which went public and ZeroOne Systems, which installed and operated the first Cray Supercomputer at NASA Ames. A venture capitalist, Greene has raised $80 million for two funds under New Vista Capital Management, investing in minority-led technology firms. His GO-Positive Foundation helps educate and train East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park youth in leadership.

Ron L. Jones worked for Hewlett-Packard, Data General and Rom Mil-Spec. He developed the Raster Image Processor through his Palo Alto business, Colossal Graphics Inc. His invention revolutionized large-format graphics by allowing personal computers to generate the large images. He developed a bulk-ink delivery system for large-format printers that allowed the printing to undergo a single pass through the printer instead of running through four times and successfully sued Hewlett-Packard for breach of contract regarding his discovery. He invented SongPro, a digital multimedia plug-in device that turned Nintendo GameBoy into an MP3 player. He died in 2004 of gastric cancer at age 48.

"History walks right among us. You don't have to look across the seas for black history," said exhibition creator and historian John William Templeton.

"We want people in Palo Alto to be evangelists and say 'Look what Roy Clay did and it was great. And look what Frank Green did and it was great. ... Our children are making important choices," he said.

Templeton has called the promulgation of the image of the successful black man as an NBA basketball star "criminal."

Contrary to public perceptions, the reality is that African-American students are twice as likely to become physicists as to be NBA stars, he said.

Greene said keeping close friends and hanging around the smartest people he could find has helped him become successful. One of his goals is to get kids to recognize that "the people that you associate with ... is one of the most important things you can do in your life."

Nothing infuriated Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier more during the Civil Rights Movement than seeing the inequality and injustice against African-Americans, he said. "The Civil Rights Movement really shaped me more than anything when I was growing up," he added.

Drekmeier signed four city proclamations: honoring the role of African-Americans in scientific and industrial development in the United States; and honoring Clay, Greene and Jones, which were adopted by the city council later Monday evening.

"It's long overdue," said Kevin Epps, a San Francisco filmmaker whose work includes "Straight Outta Hunters Point" and the upcoming "The Black Rock," a documentary about the black experience on Alcatraz.

"I'm an activist and I was distraught around the issue," he said of racial profiling after former Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson's remarks last year. Epps is working on a film about African-American technologists, he said.

Doris Richmond, the first African-American hired by Palo Alto in the city's library, said recognition of blacks working in the top tier of society is a milestone. In 1949, when she moved to the city, "they took statistics of where black people could live.

"If you keep your eye on the prize, you can do anything you want to," she said.

Related stories:

Unsung pioneers of high tech

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