Jan Ernst Matzeliger excitedly scribbled his ground-breaking idea on a scrap of paper before running 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, building prototypes out of scraps. His white co-workers laughed, calling him “Dutch Nigger” and making fun of his accent.
Ignoring them, he prayed his invention 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 – quickly do what had previously been done slowly 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 white bosses weren't going to let him upstage them. They took the credit, stole the profits, and Matzeliger died of tuberculosis alone and impoverished.
Still, Matzeliger’s tenacity and innovative spirit inspired fellow low-income laborers 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!