Long in the Shadows, the Latimer House Museum Gets a Glow-Up

In an episode of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” Peggy Scott, the budding journalist, and T. Thomas Fortune, her discerning editor, expectantly await the illumination of the New York Times building in Lower Manhattan.

“Tell me, what are your thoughts on electricity?” Fortune says.

“Are you talking about Mr. Edison’s lights?”

“Well, Mr. Edison is not solely responsible,” Fortune says, correcting her.

“Who else was involved?” Scott asks.

Lewis Latimer, Fortune responds, a Black inventor: “He created a better carbon filament. That’s the thing in the bulb that helps keep the lights on, so to speak.”

“Well, I’m sure that Mr. Edison will give Mr. Latimer his due credit at the ceremony.”

To which Fortune laughs and says, “I admire your wit, Miss Scott.”

Lewis H. Latimer did not get all the credit due him. His invention of a method to manufacture carbon filament to make lightbulbs mass-producible was patented in 1882, but he had been working at that time for Thomas Edison’s rival. (Latimer was generally recognized earlier, when the Equitable Building and the Union League Club in Manhattan were illuminated, but didn’t join Edison’s company until 1884.)

When Latimer died in 1928, he was described in a two-paragraph obituary in The Times as “an electrical engineer widely known throughout the United States.” Today, though, he is perhaps best known as the namesake of a public housing development in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens and an elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Beyond those markers, Latimer, who never got beyond elementary school himself, has been largely forgotten. Historians and civic leaders hope to rectify that with the reopening of the Lewis Latimer House Museum in Queens.

Latimer’s yellow-frame Queen Anne-style clapboard home with coral trim at the corner of 137th and Leavitt Streets near the Flushing High School athletic field has been restored and rejuvenated into a 21st-century kinetic tribute to the self-taught inventor, draftsman and patent expert.

Starting June 15, it will be open to the public Friday through Sunday, 11 a. m. to 5 p.m., and during the week to school groups.

Latimer figured profoundly, if not prominently, in the introduction of transformational scientific ventures like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the commercialization of Edison’s lightbulb and social movements like abolitionism (his father, George, was an early hero of the movement). He was also an artist, poet and flutist who presaged the Harlem Renaissance.

“It’s certainly not ‘our grandfather’s historic-house museum,’” said Hugh B. Price, the former president of the National Urban League, who becomes the museum’s chairman next month.

Latimer was Price’s great-granduncle and Price recalls visiting his great-aunt, one of Latimer’s two daughters, at the house in Flushing as a college student.

“Lewis Latimer was one of the very first African Americans to break the corporate glass ceiling and ascend the ladder of major American businesses,” said Price, a former member of the editorial board of The New York Times.

“He was an early trailblazer for the traditionally marginalized by demonstrating that qualified people who all too often are victims of discrimination and denied opportunity can compete and excel, produce and perform, create and contribute as capably as anyone else,” Price said.

In what seems like a striking omission in retrospect, the Times obituary didn’t mention that Latimer was Black — a pioneer, like Benjamin Banneker in the 18th century and Thomas Jennings in the 19th, who overcame racial discrimination to advance science and social justice movements.

Latimer’s neighborhood of Flushing has a rich Native American heritage, and it is also famous for a foundational document of American freedom: the Flushing Remonstrance, in which neighbors petitioned Peter Stuyvesant in 1657 to stop discriminating against Quakers.

Latimer was an early disciple of two nascent causes that blossomed long after his death: the integral link between science and art (now known at STEAM, for curriculums that stress science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) and the Black Is Beautiful assertion of self-respect.

The house at 64 Holly Street was scheduled to be razed in the 1980s to make way for new homes. But an article in The Times about the proposed demolition prompted the Queens Historical Society, the General Electric Foundation and Latimer’s granddaughter Winifred Latimer Norman to have it moved about a mile away to 137th Street.

Latimer lived and worked in the house from 1903 to 1928, and it was owned by the family until 1963. In 1995, it was designated a New York City landmark. Three years later, a modest museum opened, operated by the nonprofit Lewis H. Latimer Fund under an agreement with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which owns the building and land.

The museum struggled, though. It was underfunded; its exhibits were static. Its location, Flushing, had become heavily Chinese American, and the new leadership wants the museum to be more relevant to the neighborhood. One of those who had major say in the reimagining is Ran Yan, who came to the United States from China to pursue a master’s degree in historic preservation at Cornell University.

After graduation, Yan and Monica O. Montgomery received fellowships from the Historic House Trust of New York City to make Latimer House more contemporary, and Yan was ultimately appointed as the museum’s executive director.

With a $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, the first floor has been restored to its early-20th-century appearance and divided into galleries that illustrate and celebrate Latimer’s life: his biography as a Civil War soldier and civil rights activist whose mother and father were enslaved, before escaping; his connections with fellow scientists and the family’s roots in the neighborhood; his inventions, including a more efficient toilet for railroad trains and the improved carbon filament for lightbulbs; and the endurance of his drafting and patents and his legacy.

The galleries have video devices, touch screens, 3-D models and a machine that recites Latimer’s poems. His Civil War uniform is also on display, along with blueprints, drafting tools and other exhibits designed by Isometric Studio and memorabilia borrowed from the Queens Public Library.

“In the spirit of Lewis Latimer’s penchant for technology and thirst for discovery, it has been transformed into a highly interactive, tech-forward experience,” Price said.

This week, the Latimer House received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize its collection.

Latimer was born in 1848 in Chelsea, Mass. At 16, he lied about his age to join the Union Navy. He worked his way up from an office boy at a firm of patent lawyers in Boston and was awarded his first patent in 1874 — an improved toilet on railroad trains, designed with Charles W. Brown.

In 1876, Bell hired him to draft drawings that secured his patent for the telephone ahead of a rival and technical illustrations that helped bring the telephone into production.

In 1881, Latimer was named superintendent of the incandescent lamp department of Hiram Maxim’s U.S. Electric Lighting Company. A year later he patented a transcendent process to make the carbon filament that gives off light in glass bulbs, and also found a better way to manufacture the bulbs.

In 1884, he began defending Thomas Edison’s patents as an expert witness and later wrote a seminal book, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”

From 1896 until 1911, he was the chief draftsman and a patent consultant for the Board of Patent Control, formed by General Electric and Westinghouse to coordinate patent licensing and litigation.

In 1918, he helped found the stellar alumni association of Edison Pioneers and was the only African American among its 37 members.

Yan said she hopes visitors will leave the museum inspired by Latimer’s perseverance in overcoming the barriers a Black man faced in the 19th century, his self-education and his collaboration with fellow inventors, his spirit of community that led him to teach drawing to European immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement House and to found the interracial First Unitarian Church of Flushing. She noted, too, the sensitivity and grace that defined his poetry and celebration of Black culture as reflected in an ode to his wife, which ends:

O’er marble Venus let them rage
Who set the fashions of the Age,
Each to his taste; but as for me
My Venus shall be ebony.

Lewis Latimer House Museum

34-41 137th Street, Flushing, Queens; 718-961-8585, lewislatimerhouse.org.

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