Lewis H Latimer House

Lewis Latimer House

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928) was an African American inventor and humanist. He lived in this 2.5-story Victorian home from 1903 until the end of his life.

Born free in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Lewis Latimer was the son of fugitive slaves George Latimer and Rebecca Smith, who risked everything to escape from Virginia to Boston in 1842. Upon arrival, George Latimer was captured and imprisoned, which became a pivotal case for the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. His arrest and the ensuing court hearings spurred multiple meetings and a publication “The Latimer Journal and the North Star”, involving abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. Petitions were signed, one of which sparked the 1843 Personal Liberty Act, and funds were raised on George’s behalf. The large collective effort eventually gained George his freedom by November of 1842.

Against this backdrop, Lewis Latimer was born in 1848. Latimer’s young life was full of upheaval as his family moved from town to town while tensions in the country continued to mount before the Civil War broke out in 1861. In 1862, African Americans were authorized to enlist, and in 1864 Lewis joined the Union Navy at sixteen years old. After the conclusion of the Civil War, Latimer was determined to overcome his lack of formal education, and taught himself mechanical drawing and became an expert draftsman while working at a patent law office. He went on to work with three of the greatest scientific inventors in American history: Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram S. Maxim, and Thomas Alva Edison. Lewis played a critical role in the development of the telephone and, as Edison’s chief draftsman, he invented and patented the carbon filament, a significant improvement in the production of the incandescent light bulb.

Outside of his professional life, Latimer wrote and published poems, painted, and played the violin. He was one of the founders of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens, and taught English to immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement. Latimer’s home was saved from demolition in 1988 and moved from its original location on 64 Holy Place to its current location. In 1993, it was designated a New York City Landmark. The historic house now serves as a museum that shares Lewis Latimer’s story with the public and offers a variety of free educational programs.

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