Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848,
six years after his parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, had run away from slavery in Virginia. They were determined to be free and that their children be born on free soil. Because of his light complexion, George was able to pose as a plantation owner with the darker-skinned Rebecca as his slave. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, he was recognized as a fugitive and jailed while his wife was taken to a safe hiding place. The arrest was protested vigorously by the community. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped to Massachusetts several years earlier, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison spoke forcefully against the arrest. There was a trial, and the attempts to recapture George and return him to Virginia caused considerable agitation in Boston. When the trial judge ruled that Latimer still belonged to his Virginia owner, an African-American minister paid $400 for his release. Although free, George was still extremely poor, working as a barber, paper-hanger and in other odd jobs to support his wife, three sons, and one daughter.
Lewis Latimer, the youngest child, attended grammar school and was an excellent student who loved to read and draw. Most of his time, though, was spent working with his father, which was typical of children in the 19th century. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that a slave named Dred Scott could not be considered a free man although he had lived in a free state. George Latimer disappeared shortly after the decision became known. Because he had no official papers to prove he was a free man, he possibly feared for his safety and that of his family.
With his father gone and his mother struggling to keep the family together, Lewis falsified his age and joined the U.S. Navy in 1864 when he was sixteen years old. When the Civil War ended he was honorably discharged and returned...