Corporate spaces are melanin-void places.
I started a new job in 2020. In this job, we celebrate the power of engineering, technology, and biology; the power of STEM. What’s often missing from corporate STEM is A – A for atypical, A for anti-establishment, A for anti-systemic oppression, A for anti-racism, A for my Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and A for my African-descended brothers and sisters. In my first week, in our brand-new office, we were given the task of naming meeting rooms after prolific Canadian STEM contributors. White man after white man after white man after white man after Roberta Bondar was suggested. I decided not to ignore A and pushed full STEAM ahead with Mr. Elijah McCoy (born May 2, 1844).
If you’ve heard of the phrase, the Real McCoy, then you’ve heard of Mr. McCoy. He was a Black, Canadian engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur with 57 patents to his name, of which most are associated with the lubrication of steam engines (how fitting) for trains and ships. His contributions were so significant that he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2001. Like so many Black-derived creations or creators, the Real McCoy moniker is ubiquitous in modern vernacular and referenced universally with little public knowledge of its derivation.
I didn’t want to let that slide this time; not in 2020; not in the same year as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black and Brown persons overlooked and trivialized (with often fatal consequences) through systemic faculties standing on centuries of racial oppression; not in the year of Black Lives Matter and the largest, worldwide civil rights protests in the history of humanity. I put Mr. McCoy’s name forward, and all these white eyes and ears were going to get to know the REAL Real McCoy.
In a company forum, we were given an opportunity to present, debate, and select a winner from the nominees. As the only employee to nominate a Black person of color, I stood alone defending Mr. McCoy. Naturally, the room was dismissive. Who? What? Why? Some random guy no one knows about? But Roger Tomlinson invented Geographic Information Systems! Arthur B. McDonald won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for physics! Frederick Banting discovered how to use insulin for diabetes! Roberta Bondar is a freaking female Astronaut! My response was, “Yes, and that is all great, but Elijah McCoy’s inventions were instrumental in moving entire economies forward. Trains and ships, carrying goods and people, moved faster and with less issues. And, on top of that, he did it while being BLACK!”
Crickets in the room.
In the late 18th century, Mr. McCoy thrived in a society that barely recognized him as human. He went on to invent up until his deathbed despite social, economic, and political ceilings placed upon Black persons. He continued to invent despite being overlooked by his contemporaries: he was a pioneer in locomotive systems engineering; however, literature barely mentioned his name, if they did at all. Toward the end of his career, Mr. McCoy explored entrepreneurism and started several companies, some of which are in his name.
It all comes back to the Real McCoy; herein lies the source of my admiration for this great Canadian – it’s in the name. Yes, it’s incredible what he was able to achieve in spite of the barriers. But race played no role in the fact that he was simply the best at what he did. It is believed that he was given the moniker because his inventions were vastly superior to others. Railroad engineers at the time did not want inferior products from competitors; if they wanted the best, they requested the Real McCoy system.
I am not entirely sure if I was able to change the minds and hearts of my colleagues; nevertheless, I am proud to say that the Real McCoy meeting room is situated on the Southwest corner of our tiny Canadian office.
His name and legacy, even in this small capacity, lives on.