Author Interview: Jill D. Snider on Lucean Arthur Headen

In this Q&A, Jill D. Snider discusses her book Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur, out now from UNC Press.

Born in Carthage, North Carolina, Lucean Arthur Headen (1879–1957) grew up amid former slave artisans. Inspired by his grandfather, a wheelwright, and great-uncle, a toolmaker, he dreamed as a child of becoming an inventor. His ambitions suffered the menace of Jim Crow and the reality of a new inventive landscape in which investment was shifting from lone inventors to the new “industrial scientists.” But determined and ambitious, Headen left the South, and after toiling for a decade as a Pullman porter, risked everything to pursue his dream. He eventually earned eleven patents, most for innovative engine designs and anti-icing methods for aircraft. An equally capable entrepreneur and sportsman, Headen learned to fly in 1911, manufactured his own “Pace Setter” and “Headen Special” cars in the early 1920s, and founded the first national black auto racing association in 1924, all establishing him as an important authority on transportation technologies among African Americans. Emigrating to England in 1931, Headen also proved a successful manufacturer, operating engineering firms in Surrey that distributed his motor and other products worldwide for twenty-five years. Though Headen left few personal records, Jill D. Snider recreates the life of this extraordinary man through historical detective work in newspapers, business and trade publications, genealogical databases, and scholarly works.

Lucean Arthur Headen is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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Q: Can you give us a brief summary of Headen’s life and what made him an interesting figure?

A: Part of what made Headen interesting to me was the diversity of his experiences. He wore many hats in his lifetime. He spent a decade as a Pullman porter and dining car waiter for the Erie Railroad; learned to fly in 1911; served as chauffeur to Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; established a prosperous auto garage in Chicago and turned it, in 1921, into the Headen Motor Company to manufacture his own cars; established the first national-scale auto association for African Americans; organized and raced his Headen Special racer in dirt-track competitions up and down the East Coast; and, after receiving his first patent, emigrated to England, where he started an engineering firm to manufacture products based on the eleven patents he eventually earned. He also served in the British Home Guard in World War II. Headen died in England in 1957.

Q: What kind of difficulties did Headen face?

A: Headen packed a lot into his seventy-six years, and he did it at a time when Jim Crow became codified, limiting his access to advanced training and excluding him from skilled employment, and in an age when inventors like Headen, black and white, were facing shrinking opportunities. The nineteenth century had been the golden age of the independent inventor, but by the 1910s, the growth of corporations and research laboratories was gradually replacing the independents with what many have called “industrial scientists”—men trained in top technical schools, who worked together in teams, and were connected through professional networks. This shift meant independent inventors had to work harder to find financing and to stay abreast of technical knowledge, as companies closely guarded their research results.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Headen’s background?

A: Headen was born in Carthage, N.C., in 1879, in the Sandhills region of the state, and was part of one of the first cohorts of African Americans born free after the Civil War. We know little about his father Jerry Headen’s childhood, except that in 1870 he was living in Jonesboro, near Carthage, and working in a sawmill. His mother, Laura Tyson, was the daughter of wheelwright Adam Tyson, who worked for the Tyson & Jones Buggy Company in Carthage for almost forty years. Headen’s family and his childhood minister helped found a Presbyterian church and school in Carthage, so he received a basic education there, then later graduated from Albion Academy in Franklinton, before marrying and moving to Jersey City in 1903.

Q: What drew Headen to England? Many black American entertainers and intellectuals, notably Paul Robeson, toured the country or moved to England to escape American racism. Was that a motivation for Headen as well?

A: Like most motivations, Headen’s were mixed. Certainly, he was drawn to the relative freedom England offered. Some darker-skinned individuals, such as Headen’s friend Chicago Defender editor Robert Abbott, experienced segregation in London, when white American tourists objected to the presence of blacks in hotels and restaurants. Those like Headen, however, who had light brown skin, were generally well accepted across Britain, both in the cities and in the countryside.

Headen had other reasons, though, personal and pecuniary, to welcome a move to England. In 1931 he was looking for a place to start over in his personal life. He and his first wife, Tena, had divorced in December 1929 after several years of separation, and England was just far away from the pain and embarrassment of that ending for a fresh start. And there was greater demand in England than in the United States for his first patented invention—a manifold that allowed gasoline-engine cars and trucks to burn much cheaper crude oil products.

Q: The title of your book refers to Headen as an inventor and entrepreneur. He did so many things, why limit it to just those two things?

A: Headen did do many things in his life, but whenever he commented on himself and his activities, he always focused on his inventions and his business efforts. He was proud of what he called his “mechanical ingenuity,” and he often listed his occupation as inventor. Even when he learned to fly, he told reporters that the reason he had done so was to demonstrate an early stabilizer he had designed to prevent an airplane from skidding in the air when turning. He learned to fly, he said, to test it. He also never boasted about his prowess as a race car driver, even though he did fairly well for himself, but instead talked about racing’s importance to black Americans as a means of entering the automotive industry. He encouraged black youth to think of themselves not only as pilots and auto racers but as engineers and entrepreneurs. I wanted to honor that part of Headen’s outlook, to have him remembered as he would have wished to be.

Q: What were Headen’s most successful patents? Might we have heard of them?

A: Headen earned a total of eleven patents over his lifetime. Most of these, and the ones that earned him the greatest income, were for improvements to oil engines. Since most of us are not experts in engine design, we’re probably not likely to have heard of his patents for these. Oil engines were popular between the 1920s and World War II and are still used in some vehicles today.

His patents included sparking devices, his manifold, a special gasket that protected an engine’s crank, and an oil-burning carburetor. He distributed his converter kit, which eventually incorporated his manifold, his gasket, and other of his designs, across the British Commonwealth, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

In the late 1930s, Headen also patented anti-icing methods for airplane wings, propellers, and control surfaces such as the rudder. He never had the means to manufacture these designs, but his patents have been frequently cited by others from the 1940s up to today.

In the 1950s, Headen also invented a replacement tip for plowshares that he sold in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Netherlands, Australia, and India. His final patent was for rain gear for cyclists attachable to a bicycle.

Q: How significant were Headen’s inventions, do you think, in the greater scheme of things?

A: Although improved gasoline engines and diesel engines would eventually lessen the importance of oil engines, in Britain’s hour of need, when every resource had to be made usable, Headen’s converter kit allowed farmers and commercial hauliers to switch older vehicles to run on cheaper fuels. And, for vehicles already burning heavier oils, his gasket increased their efficiency. The end result was his products helped support farm production and saved much-needed petrol for the military.

After the war, Headen’s replaceable plowshare tip similarly helped struggling farmers. New, improved farm equipment came onto the market in the postwar period, but few could afford it. With the economies of so many countries devastated by the war, the majority were seeking to save, not spend, money. Headen’s replacement tip tripled the life of a share, serving the immediate need of farmers until their fortunes improved and they could purchase newer plow designs.

Finally, the work Headen did on anti-icing methods became a model for subsequent inventors. His patents provided ideas that aeronautical engineers across the world later built upon. Especially copied was a pressure-jet system he developed to pump heated air through internal piping throughout an airplane’s structure.

Q: How did you become aware of Headen and why did you decide to write a biography?

A: I cannot tell you how exciting it was, after scrolling through countless rolls of microfilm, to happen upon the January 18, 1912, issue of the New York Age, which featured a front-page photo of Headen seated at the controls of a biplane and a story on his having learned to fly.

Headen cut a striking figure, and I knew right away I would include him in my research. He also especially intrigued me because the story mentioned that he was a native of Carthage, N.C. That was just forty miles from where I grew up.

Having one’s curiosity piqued, however, is not the same as sustaining a long-term interest. The photo of Headen and the draw of proximity were compelling, but it was what I began to discover about him afterwards that led me to delve deeper. Many of those I have researched learned to fly or designed and patented airplanes in the 1910s, but almost all either eventually lost interest in aviation and invention or never found a way to pursue them.

Headen, though, was able not only to earn eleven patents, but to learn to fly; design and manufacture his own automobiles; start an auto-racing association and promote dirt-track competitions; and operate an engineering firm for twenty-five years in England. I wanted to know how he did that!

Q: Did you find the answer to that question?

A: Yes. The answer is that Headen did not do it alone. His experience, I think, illustrates for us the importance of social networks, and it underscores that while we often glorify personal success, success is as often as much a communal as an individual achievement. Headen drew throughout most of his life on a wide diversity of individuals connected by family; church, club, and fraternal memberships; and professional networks to engage in what I call in the book “coalition economics.” To finance his work, he pulled together support from multiple constituencies (black and white; young and old; northern and southern; male and female; wealthy, middle class, and poor; church-going and law-breaking) to finance and market his cars and his auto races. Many of the networks on which he relied, including those within the Presbyterian church and the Republican Party, had been built while he was still a child by his minister and his family. Those networks helped him sustain his ambitions and his work for fifty years until he could earn patents that attracted outside investment from deeper pocketed financiers.

Q: Writing the stories of black Americans is often difficult because so few written sources have survived. How did you address that problem and find enough material to write a biography?

A: When I set out to write the biography, I had very few traditional sources—Headen left no business records and only a handful of personal and business letters. He also had no living spouse or business partners I could talk to. That forced me to get creative.

Following the lead of historian Juliet E. K. Walker, who in 1983 wrote a biography of her great-great-grandfather, a slave who later started an all-black town in Illinois, all with only a handful of personal sources, I first attempted to learn as much as I could from published scholarship. I read everything from contemporary descriptions of the Presbyterian church, to writings on Reconstruction and Jim Crow, to technological and British agricultural histories so that I could fully understand the context of Headen’s experiences.

I then turned to a new cache of sources not available to Juliet Walker. The genealogical, newspaper, archival, and other online databases, as well as digitized manuscripts, now readily- accessible to us allowed me to map Headen’s social networks, to trace his movements and financial ups and downs, and to uncover the full identities of his business partners and supporters.

That allowed me to make much better use of the small number of personal sources I did have and to flesh out a portrait of Headen. I think it is a method that can be applied to documenting the lives of many people once considered impossible to write about.

Q: What do you think Headen’s biography adds to our understanding of race in America?

A: I think by studying the many instances of black-white cooperation in Headen’s life—he often had white business partners and colleagues—we can begin to better understand social policies such as Jim Crow as they were lived, rather than just how they were defined legally. Clearly there was a lot of personal and economic movement back and forth across racial lines, despite an overall policy of segregation. When you look at the exceptions, you can begin to surmise the motivations behind them. Sometimes they resulted from personal friendships and religious affinities, sometimes they represented white business people’s desire to capitalize on a money-making opportunity, sometimes they arose out of a desire by whites to feel magnanimous. If we hope today to have a realistic discussion about race, and to plumb our own thinking, we have to understand not just actions, but motivations. You can’t change something you don’t understand the driving forces behind. Headen’s story, I think, provides an opportunity for examining race relations on an individual level historically, and that may better inform our discussions today.

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Photo by Vickie Hedrick

Jill D. Snider is an independent scholar in Chapel Hill, NC. She holds a B.A. in English and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has for the past 40 years combined careers as a technical writer, program and business analyst, archivist, and historian. Dr. Snider has been a research fellow of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum, the American Historical Association, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Her work focuses on African Americans in aviation history.