Flight to the North
Lewis Latimer's story actually begins before his birth, with the escape of his parents, George and Rebecca, from slavery in 1842. As Lewis would later recount, Rebecca "determined that she would not be the mother of a slave" and devised a daring plan to escape to the North. Since George was fair-skinned "she induced him to make an effort to escape as her master. With this in view they left Norfolk, Virginia, as master and servant . . . and thus continued until they had reached Boston, Massachusetts."
Abolitionism and the Fugitive Slave Debate
By the 1840s, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had become centers of abolitionist activity in the United States, offering safety and assistance to growing numbers of African Americans who had fled their masters in search of freedom. Much of the tension between proslavery and antislavery forces focused on the issue of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists firmly resisted on moral and religious grounds any attempt to return escaped slaves to their masters. Southerners considered such activities "interference," which threatened not only the institution of slavery but their entire way of life.
In Boston, much of the abolitionist activity centered around the efforts of journalists and religious leaders to educate the public about the evils of slavery. Both blacks and whites provided leadership for the struggle, with activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and former-slave Frederick Douglass speaking and writing against slavery. In free black communities, organized resistance to slavery had been in existence since the eighteenth century.
But activities reached a turning point in the early nineteenth century, with the launching of several large, visible black political conventions and abolitionist newspapers. Boston abolitionists were prominent in founding the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
Latimer Must Be Free!
Not long after his arrival in Boston, George Latimer was recognized by an agent of his former master, arrested, and imprisoned. When an effort was made to return Latimer to Virginia, Boston abolitionists rallied to action, publicizing his cause as an example of slavery's injustices. Meetings were held throughout Massachusetts on Latimer's behalf, and a new abolitionist newspaper, The Latimer Journal and North Star, was born. Three issues a week provided readers detailed accounts on the progress of George Latimer's case.
In addition to newspapers, the abolitionists promoted their cause through oratory, song, and verse. One prominent abolitionist, Henry Bowditch, prevailed upon his friend John Greenleaf Whittier to write a poem about the Latimer case. Whittier responded with "Massachusetts to Virginia," in which the state of Massachusetts chides the state of Virginia for forgetting the ideals of the founding fathers, vowing there will be "No Fetters in the Bay State! No slave upon her land!"
Ultimately, George Latimer spent one month in jail, during which time public outcry intensified. Finally, after difficult negotiations with the court, abolitionists succeeded in obtaining Latimer's release. A black minister bought his freedom with a payment of $400 to Latimer's master, James B. Gray.
The case had far-reaching impact and did not end with the purchase of Latimer's freedom. Abolitionists vigorously opposed the use of the local jail, constables, and other government officials—all supported by public tax money—to detain fugitive slaves. Petitions were circulated and sent to both the Massachusetts Legislature and the United States Congress. In Massachusetts alone, over 65,000 persons signed these petitions, known as the Latimer or Great Petitions. In 1844, Massachusetts passed a Personal Liberty Act, which made such tax-supported assistance to slave hunters illegal.
The Nation's Response
In Washington, proslavery forces fought back, winning passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which overrode the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act. This law denied jury trials to runaway slaves and compelled government officials in all states to assist slave hunters.
The debate over slavery raged on in Washington, with the abolitionist position passionately advocated by figures such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.After an exceptionally eloquent speech against slavery, senators from the South were so deeply insulted by Sumner's words that they planned revenge. Preston Brooks, nephew of a South Carolina senator, attacked Sumner with a cane at his desk on the Senate floor, beating Sumner so severely that he was unable to return to the Senate for three and a half years.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up the matter of fugitive slaves in its 1857 Dred Scott Decision, which held that a slave who escaped or was taken to a free state did not become a free man. The ruling added to the insecurity of free blacks everywhere. It must have seemed to the abolitionists that the clock had been turned back, and that the Latimer case had been fought for nothing.
The Civil War
As Rebecca Latimer had so fervently desired, her children were born in a free state. Life was not easy for the Latimer family, however. George had difficulty finding employment, and the family had to struggle to provide for basic needs. Lewis Latimer, George and Rebecca's fourth and youngest child, was born in 1848. When Lewis was twelve years old, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President. One month later the country entered into civil war.
Like many black families in the North, the Latimer family was willing to fight for the Union cause. Lewis's older brothers, George and William, joined the Union armed forces, and when Lewis turned sixteen, he enlisted in the Union Navy. Serving aboard a side-wheel gunboat, the USS Massasoit, he saw action on the James River in Virginia, not far from Norfolk where his parents had labored as slaves.
Not surprisingly, the Civil War was a defining experience for Lewis Latimer.He believed that the heroism and loyalty demonstrated by African Americans on the battlefield proved to the nation their dignity and merit as equal citizens. In his later life, Latimer became an officer of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization. He proudly wore his Grand Army of the Republic jacket on many ceremonial occasions.
"A Taste for Drawing"
After the Civil War, Latimer returned to Boston and sought employment. In his later years Latimer recalled the humble beginnings of his technical career: *
He went from place to place . . . finally a colored girl who took care of the office of some lady copyists. . . was asked to recommend a colored boy as office boy, one 'with a taste for drawing.' [He] got the place at three dollars a week. He believed then that whatever a man knew he had put in a book, so when he saw the [draughts]man making drawings he watched to find out what tools he used, then he went to a second hand book store and got a book on drawing and soon had a set of drawing instruments. He then looked over the draughtsman's shoulder to see how he used his instruments, and practiced with them at home until he felt thoroughly master of them, then one day he asked the draughtsman to let him do some drawing for him, the man laughed at him but finally consented to look at what he could do . . . and to his surprise found that Lewis was a real draughtsman . . . one day the boss saw him at work and was so pleased that he let him work everyday and gradually raised his wages so that from three dollars when he went to work he rose in eleven years to twenty dollars a week.
In 1873, Lewis married Mary Wilson Lewis of Fall River, Massachusetts. The couple would later have two daughters, Emma Jeannette, born in 1883, and Louise Rebecca, born in 1890.