They Doubted His Important Invention

Blueprint of J. E. Matzeliger's lasting machine
Shonda Buchanan
October 25, 2020

Jan Ernst Matzeliger excitedly scribbled his ground-breaking idea on a scrap of paper and ran back to the shoe factory. This idea would revolutionize the entire industry! But it wouldn’t be easy.

He worked night and day, rarely eating or sleeping, to build a prototype out of scraps. But his white co-workers laughed, calling him “Dutch Nigger” and making fun of his accent.

He ignored their doubts and prayed his machine would work. Not just for himself, but for other workers, too. Why was it such a big deal?

Factory workers were frequently laid off when materials were scarce or the “laster” – a craftsman who manually stitched the upper of the shoe to the sole – was backed up.

Could Matzeliger’s invention – a mechanical laster – do what previously had been done much slower by hand?

Yes! The “niggerhead laster,” as his invention was derisively known for years, was one of the most important innovations of the 19th century.

But his bosses weren't going to let this Black youth upstage them. They took the credit, made all the profit, and Matzeliger died of tuberculosis due to his hard work and poverty.

Still, Matzeliger’s tenacity and innovative spirit helped fellow workers and low-income people throughout the country. 

Even if we don’t get credit, our contributions are valuable and our persistence in the face of discrimination can have massive effects on our community!

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