Reopening for Juneteenth, a Museum Celebrating a Black Inventor

Good morning. It’s Friday. Today, and on Fridays through the summer, we’ll focus on things to do in New York over the weekend.

Near a video screen on a display wall in a charming, small museum in Queens is a pair of $150 sneakers with a number: 247097. It is the number of a patent issued in 1881.

The shoes light up when someone walks in them for a few steps. As Under Armour noted when it introduced them last year, the sneakers were a tribute to Lewis Latimer.


Lewis Howard Latimer, the Black draftsman and inventor who, with a collaborator, devised a method of manufacturing carbon filaments for lightbulbs that made it easier to mass produce them.

And who worked for Thomas Edison after working for a rival in the early days of electric lighting.

And who drew the patent diagrams for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

And who came up with an early version of an air-conditioner.

And who wrote love poems and played the violin and the flute.

Latimer’s is not a household name, but after a recently finished $770,000 renovation, completed in time for Juneteenth, the museum hopes to make him better known. The museum, at 34-41 137th Street in Flushing, where Latimer once lived, reopens tomorrow after seven months of remodeling.

Inside, the walls have been painted bright blue, and there are illuminated letters spelling out “Light Up the World.” They are LEDs, a technology that is superseding the incandescent designs that Latimer helped to perfect — and that Ran Yan, the museum’s director, said she was certain that Latimer would have had ideas to improve had LEDs existed in his day.

Latimer moved to Queens in 1902, when he was in his mid-50s. Why he chose that house, which had been built in the 1880s, is a lingering question. “We don’t know why Lewis Latimer decided on Flushing,” Yan said, “but Flushing had a long history of religious freedom. It had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass spoke at Flushing Town Hall.” Latimer would surely have known that: Douglass had represented Latimer’s father, who escaped from slavery in Virginia before being caught and put on trial in the 1840s.

The museum has artifacts like a lightbulb that Latimer apparently treasured long after he had parted ways with Edison; a photograph of Edison has been printed on the glass. And a much-enlarged copy of the diagram for his first patented invention is on the wall of the museum’s restroom.

The patent, filed with a collaborator, was for a toilet for railroad cars. It was “not a marketable success,” according to Rayvon Fouché’s book “Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation.”

“I imagine that as a Black man, Lewis Latimer had a hard time attracting investment, or capital,” Yan said.

Latimer wrote in the mid-1870s that he had “made the drawings” for the patent on Bell’s telephone. This was “before Bell became famous,” Yan said.

Latimer had been the draftsman in the Boston law firm that Bell had hired to file the application. And, according to Fouché’s book, Latimer found working with Bell somewhat annoying. Latimer complained that Bell “had day classes and night classes, and I was obliged to stay at the office until after 9 p.m., when he was free from his night classes, to get my instructions from him as to how I was to make the drawings for the application for a patent upon the telephone.”

Latimer left that law firm because of management changes he was not happy about and eventually moved to Bridgeport, Conn., where he got a job as a draftsman in a machine shop. There, he met Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun. Maxim was impressed by Latimer, according to Fouché’s book. Before long, Latimer was working for Maxim’s United States Electric Lighting Company.

He went on oversee the installation of street lighting and the construction of electric plants in the United States as well as in London and Montreal. He joined Edison’s company a couple of years later.

Yan said the house never had “a cohesive design” because of a lack of resources. But a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and $10,000 grants from the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic House Trust of New York City made possible a fresh approach to presenting Latimer’s legacy. Appropriately, only the electrical system had to be redone; the house itself was structurally sound.

Yan, who was born in Beijing, arrived at the museum as a fellow in 2014 after earning a master’s degree at Cornell University. “I felt that the place had a lot of potential,” she said, “and Latimer’s story was fulfilling.”

“Obviously, I am not Black,” she said, “But I am an immigrant. The spirit of overcoming a lot of barriers, that part I could connect to.”

Weekend Weather

On Friday, prepare for a chance of showers and thunderstorms as a cool front approaches. Temperatures will climb to the high 80s.

The rest of the weekend will be mostly clear and sunny as the wind shifts to the north, with low humidity and temperatures in the 80s during the day and, at night, in the mid-to-low 60s.


In effect until Monday (Eid al-Adha).

For more events in New York, here’s a list of what to do this month.


Dear Diary:

At 35, I set off on my first solo trip to the Upper West Side. My husband and I were visiting his parents on Long Island, and I was going into the city to spend a few days with my sister.

Dragging a small roller bag, I found my way to the correct subway line and even found a seat. A gaggle of teenage girls sat across from me. Their liveliness reminded me of my teenage self.

At the next stop, a young man with a rolled towel tucked under his arm entered the car and sat next to me. I continued to look straight ahead. My eyes were focused just above the teenagers’ heads.

Suddenly, I detected some motion from the young man’s direction in my peripheral vision. Knowing that subway etiquette dictated I remain totally oblivious, I continued looking straight ahead even though I could still see small movements to the side.

I noticed the teenage girls becoming quite animated, their eyes moving from my face to whatever was moving next to me. Eventually, their excitement prompted me to look to the side.

The towel was now unwrapped, and standing in the young man’s lap was a pigeon, which he was stroking with a toothbrush to the bird’s apparent pleasure.

I can only imagine my expression as I faced front again. When I did, the teenagers burst out laughing.

Thankfully, the next stop was mine.

— Barbara Y. Phillips

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

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