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Travels — and life — improved by the Real McCoy

April 4, 2023

During the last segment of the Northwood University Freedom Seminar on April 15 in Dearborn, Michigan, Dr. Nash will discuss the importance of black entrepreneurs to American prosperity by focusing on the life and legacy of Michigan native Elijah J. McCoy.

By Dr. Kent MacDonald, Dr. Timothy G. Nash and Allen West

Whether you were traveling The Orient Express, The Royal Canadian Pacific, or the Transcontinental Railroad … your journey was eventually made better by the entrepreneurial endeavors of Elijah J. McCoy.

Elijah J. McCoy was born a free man on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. He had a great love for trains, and railroads of different sorts were important to his life before he was born until his death. His parents, George and Mildred McCoy, arrived in Ontario in 1837 via the famous “Underground Railroad.”

After a decade in Canada, McCoy’s family returned to the United States and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1847. McCoy’s parents arranged an apprenticeship for him in mechanical engineering in Scotland at age 15. After completing his studies, McCoy returned to Michigan and earned the designation of certified mechanical engineer. Sadly, racial bias prevented McCoy from gaining employment as an engineer. He eventually accepted employment as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad.

As McCoy performed the task of oiling the train’s engine, axles, and boiler, he began to discover numerous ways lubricating those parts could be done better. The implementation of his ideas would enhance the performance of a train’s moving parts, making the operation of a steam engine more efficient and safer, while extending the parts’ life expectancy. McCoy’s inventions, the most famous of which was “The McCoy Lubricator Cup,” quickly became best in class. McCoy’s cup distributed oil evenly and regularly over an engine’s moving parts in such a unique and path-breaking way that McCoy was awarded his first patent.

Along with previously stated benefits, the cup greatly reduced the need for maintenance and extended the time a train could continuously run by hours and sometimes days, making the operation of and travel by train less costly, more profitable, and more efficient. The cup was said to be so good that many train engineers desired to pilot only trains that were equipped with the McCoy oiler system, not wanting to settle for a substitute. Many would ask, “is this train equipped with ‘The Real McCoy?’”

McCoy would continue to improve his lubrication devices. He was awarded 57 patents over his lifetime, with 50 of his patents awarded in lubrication for steam engines powering locomotives and ships around the world. Of his remaining patents, one was awarded for the folding ironing board and another for a lawn sprinkler. With little capital and minimal management experience, McCoy sold many of his initial patents to acquire the funds needed for additional research and to start the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1920. McCoy’s company proudly produced a variety of lubrication products under his name. McCoy died in 1929 at age 85. In 2011, he was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It is ironic that the Underground Railroad brought McCoy’s parents to freedom as they could not travel by means of a steam-powered train from Kentucky to Canada. McCoy’s parents could never have imagined during that dangerous trek north that their yet-to-be-born son would, in spite of continued prejudice, revolutionize the above-ground railway system and play a vital role in the industrialization and expansion of the American and global economies.

Perhaps more than any Black entrepreneur, McCoy ‘laid the track’ for tremendous progress by Americans in general, and he was especially impactful to Black Americans in the roughly 100 years since his death.

Consider the following:

The number of Black members of Congress has increased dramatically since 1929. A Black president presided for two historical terms, while a Black U.S. vice president is completing her first term in office. Today, we have two Black U.S. Supreme Court justices. Further, a record number of Black Americans now hold federal judgeships.

Also, the color barrier has been shattered in all U.S. professional sports. Since 1929, Black Americans have won numerous Academy Awards, traveled in space, and won many Nobel Prizes. Super Bowl LVVII saw two Black starting quarterbacks, a first in Super Bowl history. 

Economically, there are many reasons to celebrate within the Black community. The Multicultural Economy Report for 2021 from the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth estimates minority buying power in the U.S.  has increased over the past 30 years. Selig estimates the buying power for Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans is up from $671 billion in 1990 to $4.9 trillion today. The total buying power of this demographic increased from 15.6% of the U.S. economy in 1990 to 28.3% in 2020.

The Selig Center report also noted that purchasing power among Black Americans rose to $1.6 trillion or 9% of our nation’s total purchasing power — a number equal to the nominal GDP of Canada in 2020.

We are also pleased to see Black Americans embrace free enterprise. Based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 3 million Black-owned businesses in the U.S. with almost 141,000 Black-owned multi-employee businesses employing roughly 1.5 million people while the remaining 2.86 million Black businesses serving as single-person sole proprietorships or partnerships.

Within higher education, the number of Black first-year medical students increased again in the fall of 2022, which brought overall enrollment of Black or African American students to a record 9,630 or 10% of total U.S. medical school students. The Law School Admission Council declared the incoming class of 2022 to be the most diverse law school class in U.S. history.

America is not perfect, but we have come a long way. It is important for all Americans to celebrate Black history and the path-breaking accomplishments of great Americans like Elijah McCoy. By doing so, we simultaneously condemn the prejudice that held back McCoy and as a result, slowed the future growth and expansion of the overall U.S. economy.

These vital and non-politicized discussions also present opportunities to talk about difficult realities that still exist. We must never forget the prejudice which handcuffed a great American entrepreneur and do our best to stamp out any remaining vestiges of such behavior. The value of Elijah McCoy’s story is he didn’t allow circumstances and obstacles to deter his will. Instead of accepting the subservient status of victim, he was driven to be a victor. We should embrace that indomitable entrepreneurial spirit every day. We must ensure every American feels free to dream big and chase those dreams, regardless of race, color, creed, or gender, as a free and productive American economy is an economy where ALL will prosper. 

About the authors

Dr. Kent D. MacDonald is president of Northwood University.

Dr. Timothy G. Nash is director of the McNair Center at Northwood University.

Retired Lt. Colonel Allen B. West is a former member of the U.S. Congress, and the author of “We Can Overcome, an American Black Conservative Manifesto.”

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