Do you know the true story behind the label “The Real McCoy?”
It’s a sad but intriguing saga that began in the mind of a bespectacled young Black boy named Elijah. A budding genius, Elijah McCoy was the son of fugitive slaves who escaped the cotton fields of Kentucky and fled to Canada in the mid-1800s. After a short stay, they decided to farm plots of land in Michigan. Elijah, who was three years old at the time, journeyed across the Detroit River with his parents and 11 siblings and settled in Ypsilanti before moving to a burgeoning metropolis that would later become The Motor City.
Between the two cities, the family focused on growing tobacco and making cigars. With the exception of little Elijah. Fueled by a passion for anything mechanical, Elijah was a devout bookworm and his parents eventually saved enough money to send him to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A few years later, he returned home with an engineering certificate only to discover that Blacks weren’t allowed skilled jobs. All he could find was hard labor shoveling coal into train locomotives and constantly oiling their axels.
The work left him exhausted and perplexed. He couldn’t understand why the engine’s mechanisms had to be lubricated manually. And why the process had to be carried out so often. Compelled by curiosity and necessity, Elijah invented a solution — an automated lubricating cup that allowed trains to run longer and faster without stopping.
By now it was 1872 and his creation was a major breakthrough. Because it made engines more efficient, the lubrication cup revolutionized the railroad industry and should have opened doors for the young whippersnapper who envisioned it.
It did not. Society has a habit of minimizing, distorting and often hiding the accomplishments of African Americans. And this case of an eccentric young Black man with wire-rimmed glasses was no different. Elijah’s invention made millions of dollars, but very little money trickled back to his pockets.
Although he continued to upgrade his original device and mastermind new ones, he was repeatedly denied profits – despite acquiring more than 57 patents. Meanwhile, his products were so dependable that versions made by competitors were deemed inadequate. To avoid getting stuck with inferior imitations, railroad purchasing agents always asked if the gadgets they were buying were “The Real McCoy.”
Gradually, Elijah’s name faded into obscurity and the term “The Real McCoy” (meaning the real thing) embedded itself in the American psyche and vernacular. It was even the title of a corny, 1960’s TV sitcom featuring a crotchety old man dubbed “Grandpappy Amos McCoy.” It had become a catchy phrase that no longer had much to do with the person who had made it popular.
Elijah never secured the funds to manufacture and market his innovations. He was just another Black man trampled by the racist power structure of a country still recovering from Civil War. With no rights and no legal means to fight the system, he lost ownership of the very equipment he had worked so hard to build.
During subsequent years of struggle, his health declined and he spiraled through cycles of poverty and despair. He spent the final months of his life in Eloise Mental Asylum in the woods of Westland, Michigan, suffering from hypertension and dementia. In some accounts, it is said his attending physicians believed he was having “delusions of grandeur” about being a great inventor.
He died in 1929 at the age of 85. His modest gravesite is located in the historic Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren.