For me, Black History Month is probably the one time of the year when the black community can come together. It shows what we have achieved within our communities over the past decades and centuries but also what we’re achieving now. Unfortunately, it has never been given its rightful place in history. 

 When I was asked to contribute a blog during Black History Month for Opening Doors, I did not hesitate to do so. I decided to write about someone who has inspired me, not necessarily someone from the LGBTQ+ community but an individual who I have found to be an inspiration because of what he had achieved considering the obstacles he would have had to overcome before his death in 1929. That person is Elijah McCoy. We often use a phrase that is representative of him without probably knowing anything about him and why this phrase is used. 

 ‘The Real McCoy’ – is the expression which many of may have heard or we may have said ourselves without really understanding its origin.  

 Elijah McCoy was a black American who was born during the civil war in 1843. During this turbulent period in history, very few businesses would ever consider employing a black person in a professional capacity and less so as an engineer. During this time, the railroads employed a large number of black men, and probably more than any other industry but only in a track laying capacity or in the train yards doing menial job. 

 Elijah McCoy was born a free person In Colchester Ontario on the 2nd May 1843. His parents George and Mildred were former slaves from Kentucky and had escaped to Canada via the Underground Rail Road. This was a famous and well documented network of people, houses and farms that gave shelter to escaping slaves who were making their way North on their way to freedom. After some years, McCoy parents returned to the USA and settled in “Ypsilanti” Michigan and it’s here that Elijah went on to have a secondary education. 

Elijah came from a large family of eleven brothers and sisters and was always fascinated by machinery. His parents made huge sacrifices and sent him to Edinburgh where he studied mechanical engineering. At the end of his studies, he returned to Michigan and headed to Detroit hoping to find work as an engineer but had to take the best job he could find on the railroad. His work included oiling the engines of the trains. 

 In those days, the engines had to be temporarily turned off to be oiled or they would overheat, catch fire or breakdown. Oiling helped reduced the friction and prevent wear and tear. Elijah became aware that children some of whom were orphans were also oiling the engines by hand and were called “Grease Monkeys”. This was dangerous work that could injure or kill them, and it often did. They were paid pennies a day and slept on the dirty floors where they worked. Elijah quickly realised that there was a need for a safer and more efficient method for oiling the trains. He then spent some time developing a device that would lubricate the engines without stopping their operation and without endangering life. 

 Having finally figuring the answer, it turned out to be quite simple - a drip cup filled with oil attached to an engine or machine. Elijah patented his device in 1872. A year later, he had improved the device and received a second patent. He assigned all or parts of his patents to others in exchange for money to finance his workshop and continued assigning patents from then on. At first train engineers were sceptical to use the device because it was developed by an African American but finding how efficient the device was, it quickly changed their minds. Within a short time, railroads, shipping lines and factories throughout the world bought the McCoy lubricating cup. 

 Around 1920, Elijah McCoy agreed to let some businessmen establish the   Elijah McCoy company in Detroit to make and sell his inventions. He worked as a patent consultant to the railroad and other industries and businesses. Other companies tried to copy the McCoy products, but none met the McCoy standard for excellence, and if people wanted the best quality, they would always ask ‘Is this the real McCoy?’ hence the expression that came about. By 1926, McCoy had received more than forty patents for lubricating devices and inventions. These included special tyres and lawn sprinklers. 

Elijah McCoy lived to quite an old age. Businessmen made millions from his inventions, much more than he had ever made for himself. In his later life with little money and perhaps few regrets he spent his time counselling and encouraging young people to pursue careers in science and technology. He died in Detroit Michigan at the age of eighty- five.