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America's History in the Making

Industrializing America

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Rayvon Fouché.

Rayvon Fouché is an associate professor of history and African American studies at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation. He was interviewed near the historic Lewis Latimer House in New York City.

Q: Why is biography such a good window into history?

Fouché: If you have a compelling, interesting story about a human individual, group, or institution, it's a way to place oneself in the historical past. This perspective helps us understand their identities at the present moment in society.

Q: Has there been a shift in the way historians and authors approach biographical subjects?

Fouché: The general shift is to a broader understanding of all kinds of work, and that's happening in the humanities across the board with the development of more cultural analysis. For instance, most people started writing about black inventors during the civil rights movement. It was important to have these flawless hero champions. However, as times have changed, the thrust of black life and black community has changed: We don't need these narrow, flawless hero champions anymore. These “celebrated biographies,” as I like to call them, are limited in their scope and understanding of these people. A nuanced biography provides a deeper, more contextual understanding of these people's lives—telling what really happened.

Q: What compelled you to investigate early black inventors?

Fouché: A friend's grandmother gave me a small article on black inventors. As I was reading the article, I realized that several things didn't quite add up to me. I began researching and investigating black inventors and found that article to be fairly wrong in many ways. That led to writing Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation, which looks at three black inventors—Lewis Latimer, Granville Woods, and Shelby Davidson—and thinking about them as individuals. The book explores how they fit into late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American society as inventive people and black people in America.

Q: Why did you choose the title Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation?

Fouché: That question is a little complicated because I didn't title the book. Part of the reason is that the title would sell. But I think putting black inventors in the context of American history broadens our understanding of what it means to be a black inventor. Instead of writing a narrow book about black inventive experiences, I situated black inventors within the larger issues of segregation—because a lot of the black inventors did struggle with issues of segregation. A lot of the opportunities that were open to white inventors were not available to black inventors. I think the three inventors I studied provide very interesting examples of how to exist in a segregated society, invent, be creative, and actually produce objects.

Q: Why did you choose Lewis Latimer as one of your subjects?

Fouché: There were people invested in saving his memory, so that made him an easy source of research. But he was also one of the most important black inventors of that time period. His connection with Edison and other large companies of the period made him a very interesting player.

Q: Was it unusual for a black man in that period to be employed at a company like General Electric?

Fouché: It was tremendously unusual. Part of the reason I argue that he was able to get employment working for General Electric is that, before he started working for General Electric in the 1880s, he went to London and had a little bit of success working for an electrical lamp manufacturer there. When he came back to the United States, he ended up working for most of the second- and third-tier electrical lighting and manufacturing companies. When the Edison patent started to be challenged in the 1880s, General Electric needed someone to help them get rid of all the other people in the electrical lamp game. So Latimer knew all the people, and when General Electric went to court, Latimer was a really important internal expert to defend Edison's patent against all the other players in the electrical lamp business. So I would say that he was treated fairly well in the context of the Edison companies, but at the same time, he was a black man.

Q: How did segregation affect Latimer's life?

Fouché: His only title throughout his whole time at General Electric was draftsman, so he never moved up into the managerial hierarchy of the company. And most of the people that started with him or were at his level were high-level managers by the early twentieth century. But I think overall he was very well respected, partially because he had a high level of skill. And in many ways his skill overrode most people's concerns about race; but I'm not sure the Edison companies or General Electric would have liked three or four black people working at the company.

Q: What are some misconceptions that people might have about black inventors at this time?

Fouché: One of the biggest misconceptions is that they were all race champions who invented to uplift black people and make black people proud and to fight against racism in our society. I think some did, but others were inventing for the same reasons white inventors were: to make money, to have an idea that they created out in the world. Another misconception is that a patent equaled financial success. Most black inventors didn't become wealthy from their patenting activities. Latimer had a handful of patents, none of which made him any money. He was very well off, but that had more to do with working for General Electric than it had to do with his patenting activity.

Q: Was there a main issue you wanted people to understand about black inventors from this period?

Fouché: I wanted people to understand that these black inventors were human beings. We often think about them as these disembodied objects for analytical study, but they were human beings. They did really wonderful things, and some did really horrible things. At that time, invention was considered to be a God-given ability. What was important about black inventors was that showing their skills could fight the belief that black people were inferior. But if we know these people were inventive and creative, how can we think of them as regular, everyday people? And what does it mean for them to be regular, everyday people—and for invention to not be some high, lofty ability? It means their success was due to a lot of hard work, luck, and being in the right place at the right time.

Q: What was your process for researching your subjects?

Fouché: When doing biographies of inventors, it's best to start with their patents because the National Archives houses most of their patent information. The process begins by initially registering. After that point, you'll have a meeting with an archivist who will let you know which record group of documents you're looking for, how to obtain those documents, and how to pull those documents from the stacks. Hopefully, the archivist will help you work through these documents initially, and then you'll be set free to do your own independent research. You'll find what's called the “patent wrapper,” a document that contains all the patent correspondence between the patentee, the patent attorney, and the patent office. Those documents often contain important information such as where the person lived, who his patent attorneys were, who his friends were, and what interactions they had with various different people. All of these details allow you to understand a lot about the person's inventive career.

Q: What kinds of research informed your understanding of Latimer's personal life?

Fouché: If possible, it's important to find family members. For Latimer, this was fairly easy because his granddaughter, Dr. Winifred Latimer Norman, has been very active in preserving his history. Some of the most interesting conversations I had with Dr. Norman had to do with Latimer as an individual, because these are the bits and pieces that are impossible to find in any written text or archive. Who was he as a person? How did she interact with him? Was he funny? How was he as a grandfather? Was he a stiff, stern person? Who was he as an individual? Those personal relationships are invaluable. She was also able to direct me to personal correspondence, letters, photographs: multiple documents that allowed his life to be more three-dimensional, to give him a history and to make it relevant to the present.

Q: Which personal documents were especially telling?

Fouché: There were a few letters from Booker T. Washington to Latimer, but also a letter from T. Thomas Fortune, who was also a Booker T. Washington supporter and a very well-off member of an East Coast black elite. These letters let me know about the connections Latimer had with various elite communities in Washington, D.C., which allowed me to place him in different contexts as a human being. I was able to understand what his social networks and connections were.

Q: Did Dr. Norman's insights change the way you perceived Lewis Latimer?

Fouché: It's interesting that his granddaughter really likes his poem “Ebon Venus” because, as she puts it, it relates him to black people and talks about the beauty of black people. What I find intriguing is that the poem is very reflective of 1960s black nationalists' writing. So it made me rethink how I consider Lewis Latimer. I've written in my book about his assimilationist politics, but at the same time, he's writing this beautiful poetry about blackness in American society. It gives great insight into him as a human being, because the poems are written for his wife—which, again, makes you think of him as a really wonderful individual who's not just an inventor. He's thinking with both sides of his brain and trying to bring those two together in some meaningful way for himself.

Q: What challenges did you face in writing Latimer's biography?

Fouché: I think some of the difficult parts of the research are trying to lay out the story. When you have a handful of bits and pieces and scraps, how do you create a coherent narrative that makes sense and makes a story out of this collection of disparate elements? The easiest way to overcome that difficulty is talking with other people who have done the work before. I would go to the Smithsonian and speak with someone like Elliot Sivowich—an expert in late nineteenth-century electrical work—who helped me sort out that aspect of the story. Talking with people, I would get more leads going in different directions that would allow me to fill out my story.

Q: Do you think you adequately explored the different facets of Latimer's life?

Fouché: I think a lot of the praise I received was for telling a thoughtful story of a complex individual who was not necessarily the race champion we would like him to be, but was an important and interesting individual nonetheless. A lot of the criticism also came from actually doing that, because some of the most valued images we have of the black inventors are these narrow race champions. Destabilizing the flawless hero champions for a lot of people is very problematic. But I wouldn't say that's just for black inventors: I think that's for all inventors and all heroes we have. When people try to show them as normal human beings that weren't all that we expected them to be, they sometimes become less heroic. But I argue they become, in a sense, more heroic because they represent the good and the bad, and they give us a broader understanding of what these people really are.

Q: After spending so much time researching Lewis Latimer, did you develop a personal affinity with him?

Fouché: What's interesting about doing biographies is that, the more you research the people, the more you start to really feel like you know them. When reading letters between them and other individuals, all of a sudden you feel you know what they're going to say, which is an interesting and strange moment. When I get to the moment where I feel like I can fill in these people's words, that's when I know I kind of have them, I think. But at the same time, I try to back off that and realize I can only know someone like Latimer so well because I only have this narrow slice of the documents of his life. I have never heard his voice. I know a lot about him from what's left in his paper record, but other than that, he's a mystery to me.

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