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Boston-area blacks have a history of enterprise and ingenuity

Melvin B. Miller
Boston-area blacks have a history of enterprise and ingenuity
“They’re all part of our industrial heritage.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

American private enterprise enables those who are so inclined to go into business. Over the years the growth of business has become the greatest source of wealth in the nation. Unfortunately, too few African Americans have become entrepreneurs. One objective of the Banner’s recent “Money Talk” conference was to provide information and inspiration to those planning a business career. An awareness of the inventiveness and determination of black Greater Boston residents of an earlier generation should be encouraging.

Robert Hayden’s book entitled “Eight Black American Inventors” included several from the Boston area. Lewis Temple (1800-1854) was a blacksmith in New Bedford who designed and manufactured a harpoon that became the standard in the whaling industry.

Jan E. Matzeliger (1852-1889) lived in Lynn at a time when all shoes were essentially made by hand. He invented the shoe lasting device that made it possible to manufacture shoes by machine. This invention gave birth to the American shoe making industry which for decades was located in Greater Boston. His invention became the foundation of the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, with former headquarters at 138 Federal Street in Boston and with factories in Beverly.

Lewis H. Latimer (1848-1928) was an associate of Thomas Edison, for whom he designed the first electric lightbulb. A skilled draftsman, he also drew the plans for Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone patent. He became the only African American to be part of the Edison Pioneers when they relocated to New Jersey to develop numerous electronic products.

The inventions of Matzeliger and Latimer were protected by patents, but Temple’s was not. Many inventors cannot afford the expense of obtaining a patent to protect the rights to their work, so they are forced to sell their creations at a bargain basement price. A black Bostonian named Herman Hemingway invented the air brake, a device commonly found in the large trucks that carry goods across the country. When he was unable to raise the capital to develop the product, he sold out the rights. Consequently, very few recognize that black ingenuity enables huge trucks with a heavy load to stop on a dime.

The most successful black businessman in the state during colonial times was Paul Cuffee (1759-1817). From the age of eight he lived on a 116-acre farm in Westport, Mass. that his father, a freed slave, had purchased. Cuffee became skilled in boat building and navigation. During the Revolutionary War he was able to run the British blockades. After the war Cuffee built his own merchant fleet. With black and Native American crews he engaged in commerce in ports on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

But Cuffee did not rest on his affluence, and went on to become active in social change. When he and his brother John were denied the right to vote, although they had met the requirement as property owners, they refused to pay taxes on the grounds of “no taxation without representation.” The state relented. When there was resistance to a racially integrated town school in Westport, Cuffee built a school on his own property, hired the teachers and invited all the town children of any race to attend.

Slavery, segregation and blatant racial discrimination have not succeeded in destroying the ingenuity and creativity of African Americans. Indeed, today’s more supportive circumstances should open the door to greater entrepreneurial opportunities for those who are skilled and determined.