On a relatively quiet street in Flushing, Queens, an adorable yellow and red Queen Anne-style house sits surrounded by nondescript low-to-mid-rise apartment buildings. You’d think the contrast between the house and its surroundings would bring it more attention, but the Lewis Latimer House Museum exists much in the same way its namesake did: humble and underrated, yet extraordinary. Perhaps some insight into the life of Lewis Latimer, this remarkable but undervalued man, will coax you into dropping by his house sometime soon.
Lewis Latimer was one of the most gifted Black inventors of his day and his work to assist other inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram Maxim, and Thomas Edison should alone be enough to earn him a prominent spot in history books. Latimer’s talent as a draftsman was instrumental in Bell being able to submit the patent for the telephone mere hours before his rival did. And Latimer’s mastery of electricity not only improved the newly invented lightbulb, but also helped make it a practical household feature. On top of that, he invented a forerunner to the air conditioner. But yet, Lewis Latimer isn’t a household name.
If you were to go back in time to 1858 and see Lewis Latimer at ten years old, it wouldn’t have seemed probable that he would one day become a talented inventor, let alone an underrated one. At ten, Latimer’s childhood had come to an abrupt end. His father, George Latimer, had recently deserted the family, leaving his wife Rebecca and their four children to fend for themselves. (Being that Lewis’s parents were both escaped enslaved people, historians speculate that George Latimer left his family in order to protect them, as the ruling of the 1857 Dred Scott case put George Latimer at risk of being captured and returned into slavery.) Lewis had to drop out of school to find work, and eventually he was sent to The Boston Farm School, which is not as fun as you’d think. The labor-filled days at the institution were so intolerable that Lewis and William, one of his older brothers, ran away from the school, found their mother in Boston, and begged her not send them back.
After a stint as a landsman in the Navy during the Civil War (let’s gloss over the fact that he enlisted in the Navy at 15 years old), the now 17-year-old Latimer got a job as an office boy at the patent office of Crosby, Halsted, and Gould in Boston. Fascinated by the work of the draftsmen who drew the patents, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing and persuaded the company to hire him as a draftsman. Not only was Latimer the company’s first Black draftsman, he eventually became its chief draftsman.
He went on wowing white people and breaking barriers at his next jobs as an engineer and supervisor for Hiram Maxim and a patent litigation expert for Thomas Edison at the Edison Electric Light Company. But that didn’t mean he didn’t also encounter plenty of prejudice. Ask a tour guide at the Lewis Latimer House Museum to tell you about how Latimer was treated on a business trip to London in 1882 and check out the excerpt from his journal where he talks (in third person, oddly enough) about how his colleagues would underestimate his ability to do the same work they could, forcing him to prove that his abilities far exceeded theirs.
You would think these experiences would make Latimer into a more outspoken activist, but I guess he wasn’t the type of person to seek much attention. However, he was friends with some of America’s most well-known Black intellectuals and social reformers during his lifetime, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois, so it would be a mistake to confuse Latimer’s relative silence with complicity.
Latimer may not have been a fiery orator, but he did have other talents. On top of his abilities as a scientist, Latimer was a painter, musician, and a writer, and he taught himself French, German, and Latin. When you visit the Lewis Latimer House Museum, ask to see the portraits he painted of his family members and the book of poems he wrote for his wife, Mary. What a romantic! If you don’t leave the Lewis Latimer House Museum feeling slightly inadequate because Latimer was such a Renaissance man, you’re lying. Or maybe you just have higher self-esteem than I do…. Potential feelings of inadequacy aside, it’s worth going out to Flushing to visit the humble home of a man that should have been a bigger deal both in his time and ours.
The Lewis Latimer House Museum is located at 34-41 137th Street in Flushing, Queens. At the time of this posting, it is open Fridays and Saturdays from 11am until 5pm. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation of five dollars.
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