Readers who thumbed through the Norfolk Beacon newspaper of Oct. 15, 1842, would have come across what was, at the time, a very ordinary type of newspaper advertisement: Businessman James Gray was looking for a runaway slave.
“Ran away on Monday night last,” the ad read, and then proceeded to give a physical description of the missing human property known as George Latimer. By the time the ad appeared, eleven days had past — and Latimer was long since gone from Virginia.
Latimer had been born on July 4, 1819 — a date that celebrated America’s independence but not his own. In his youth, Latimer was owned by a man named Edward Mallery, who hired out his slave as a domestic servant and later as a laborer —customary ways for slaveowners in cities to make use of the people they held in bondage. For Latimer’s service, Mallery was paid 25 cents a day, out of which he was responsible for clothing Latimer. Latimer, of course, was not paid at all because that’s how slavery worked.
Mallery was evidently not the most astute businessman, because he ran up enough debts that the sheriff of Norfolk came calling with a legal notice. It was not Mallery who suffered, though. In the custom of the times, the sheriff locked up Latimer — depriving Mallery of one of his sources of income. Twice, Latimer was jailed for his master’s debts. In time, Mallery was sold to James Gray, a storeowner with a temper and a reputation for beating whites and blacks alike. In a memoir, Latimer wrote that he dreamed of escaping his enforced servitude. “I have thought frequently of away even when I was a little boy. I have frequently rolled up my sleeve and asked — ‘can this flesh belong to any man as horses do?’”
On Oct. 4, 1842, his chance came, courtesy of Norfolk’s status as a seaport. The 23-year-old Latimer and his wife, Rebecca, stowed away on a ship bound for Baltimore. From there, they made their way north to Boston, seemingly safe from the reward that Gray offered for his capture: $25 if he was apprehended in Virginia, $50 plus expenses if he were found out of state. Instead, Latimer had some very bad luck. Soon after arriving in Boston, he crossed paths with an acquaintance of Gray, who recognized Latimer. By Oct. 19, Gray had hired a Boston attorney to reclaim his runaway property. Except there was a problem: Virginia might have considered Latimer to be property — with no more rights than the horse he referenced — but did Massachusetts?
Massachusetts at the time was the center of the nation’s growing abolitionist movement. This was where William Lloyd Garrison published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Suddenly, Boston was riveted by the court case over Latimer. Trinity College historian Scott Gac writes in The New England Quarterly: “His case, which became a benchmark in 1840s American history, roused New England antislavery advocates, recalibrated local and national understandings of slavery and freedom, and calcified divisions of state — Massachusetts versus Virginia — and nation — North versus South. George Latimer, the traditional narrative goes, helped send the nation down the divided path to civil war.”
The U.S. Constitution seemed clear: Fugitive slaves who escaped to other states “shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Massachusetts in 1842 simply didn’t care what the Constitution said. In 1836, the state Supreme Court ruled that slaves who entered the state were free the moment they entered Massachusetts. Other Northern states followed suit with similar laws. The stage was being set for something —now we know what.
Latimer was arrested, pending the outcome of the case, which dragged on as lawyers argued over which court had jurisdiction — the federal courts (which would adhere to the Constitution) or the state ones (where local judges were far more sympathetic). One group of abolitionists tried to free Latimer from prison. They failed, but their attempt was a sign of how volatile the situation was. Latimer’s lawyer chaired meetings in Boston’s Faneuil Hall where attendees voted in favor of secession if that was the only way to keep escaped slaves from being captured and returned to the South. Petitions were circulated demanding that Massachusetts authorities refuse to detain escaped slaves. (Feel free to draw whatever analogy you wish with the contemporary call for “sanctuary cities” to refuse to work with federal immigration authorities.) One petition delivered to the Massachusetts state legislature had so many signatures it weighed 150 pounds. A new newspaper was founded — The Latimer and North Star Journal — that championed his case. The paper reported that feelings were so strong that “fire and bloodshed threatened in every direction.” In the end, what could have become a national crisis (and an early version of the infamous Dred Scott case) was averted: Massachusetts abolitionists raised $400 to buy Latimer’s freedom — and down in Virginia, Gray was apparently happy to pocket the money and be done with the whole thing. Latimer spent the rest of his life as a paper hanger in Lynn, Massachusetts.
So why are we telling you this? Because this isn’t where the story ends. Latimer and his wife had four children. The youngest of them was named Lewis Latimer. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and afterwards worked as a clerk for a Boston law firm that specialized in patent law. Latimer learned how to use drafting tools and, in time, was promoted to head draftsman. Alexander Graham Bell hired him to draft the papers required to obtain a patent for his new invention, the telephone. From there, Latimer went on to become one of the most important inventors of the late 19th century. One of his inventions: A carbon filament to power the light bulb. Thomas Edison had tried other things to power light bulbs, but it was Latimer’s carbon filament that worked best and made it possible for Edison’s light bulb to be commercially successful. Edison hired Latimer, who supervised the installation of electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. He also wrote the first book on electric lights.
So why are we telling you this? Because in the new movie “The Current War,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison, there are several scenes where Edison is seen talking to an African American man, played by Simon Manyonda. That character is never introduced or explained — but he is Lewis Latimer. And this is the story about why he was there.