Scottron, Samuel R.
Samuel R. Scottron
Aprominent entrepreneur and inventor, Samuel R. Scottron was an important member of Brooklyn's elite black community. From the 1870s through 1894, he concentrated on inventions and secured a number of patents for items that led to his becoming a wealthy man. A Republican, Scottron was prominent in political circles in the borough. He became the first African American member of Brooklyn's board of education and held the prestigious post for eight years. His work as an activist was seen in the articles on race that he published widely, and in his work as co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Society.
While some sources claim that he was born in Philadelphia sometime in 1843, Samuel Raymond Scottron, according to Gail Lumet Buckley in The Hornes, was born free in New England. He and his parents, whose names are not known, came from Springfield, Massachusetts. Buckley says that "his antecedents were probably West Indian-born Gold Coast Africans and the poorest of the British emigrants." They may have been "indentured servants, seamen, small farmers, and artisans," writes Buckley. Their lineage also included Native American, of the original inhabitants of eastern Massachusetts, from the Pequot tribe of the Algonquian nation. The Scottrons moved to New York in 1849 and then relocated to Brooklyn in 1852. Young Samuel enrolled in the public schools in New York City and later in Brooklyn; when he was fourteen years old, he graduated from grammar school in Brooklyn. His ambition was to continue his education, as many of his schoolmates had done, but much to Samuel's disappointment, his father had other plans for the course his son's life would take. He would not continue his education until later, when with great determination he entered night school on his own.
The elder Scottron was a barber, barkeeper, and baggage master on a boat plying the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. While on the New York to Albany journey, he often took Samuel with him to serve as his helper. Now with the possibility of additional education behind him, his son would gain practical experience instead. Soon after the Civil War began, the elder Scottron entered a partnership with a man whose name is known simply as Mr. Statia to form Statia, McCaffil, and Scottron. The firm already had a commission as a sutler for a black regiment, the Third U. S. Colored Infantry that had begun in Pennsylvania. In 1863 young Samuel went South with the regiment as his father's representative in the partnership. The regiment was stationed at Morris Island, South Carolina, in what was called the Department of the South. The small schooner on which they traveled was loaded with barrels of apples and other perishables, canned goods, and other items. The perishable items decayed as bad weather extended to six weeks what should have been a one-week trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Following that, they lost their deck load while traveling up the St. John's River to Jacksonville, Florida. The two-year ordeal was unprofitable for the firm.
While in Fernandina, Florida in 1864, Scottron assisted in the first general election that allowed the new freedmen to vote. He endeared himself to the black residents and won the right to represent them in the National Colored Convention held in Syracuse, New York in 1865. Scottron also sought out other ways to make money. He opened grocery stores in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Lakeville, Tallahassee, and Palatka, but he soon left the profitless ventures and returned north.
Following one of his father's trades, Scottron opened a barbershop in Springfield, Massachusetts. His customers used hand mirrors to examine their haircuts. As Scottron observed the difficulty his customers experienced in trying to get a full view of the sides, rear, and top of the head, he decided to invent a mirror to provide the view desired. Thus, he invented what was known as Scottron's adjustable mirrors. In a 1904 article in the Colored American Magazine, he described his first invention as "mirrors so arranged opposite each other as to give the view of every side at once." This was, in his opinion, new, useful, and simple. So successful were the mirrors that Scottron soon took on a white partner and the new firm began at 658 Broadway in New York City, operating under the name Pitkin and Scottron. Thomas Richmond bought Pitkin's interest in the business and almost immediately lost all of his property in the Great Chicago Fire; this was disastrous to the mirror business as well.
- Born in New England or Philadelphia
- Family relocates to New York City
- Family relocates to Brooklyn, New York
- Travels to South Carolina with the firm Statia, Caffil, and Scottron
- Assists freedmen in voting in first general election, Fernandina, Florida
- Attends National Colored Convention in Syracuse, New York; opens grocery stores in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Lakeville, Tallahassee, and Palatka, Florida around this time
- With Henry Highland Garnett, founds Cuban Anti-Slavery Society and serves as secretary
- Graduates from Cooper Union
- Elected grand secretary general of the Masons
- Obtains patent for adjustable window cornice on February 17
- Obtains patent for a cornice on January 16
- Co-founds the Society of the Sons of New York
- Obtains patent for pole top on September 30
- Obtains patent for curtain rod on August 30
- Obtains patent for supporting bracket on September 12
- Perfects "porcelain onyx"; becomes first black member of Brooklyn board of education
Scottron traded his services as bookkeeper for looking-glass manufacturer W. A. Willard for space in his store located at 177 Canal Street in New York City. This arrangement gave him an opportunity to reestablish himself. After four years and a brief and unsuccessful business partnership with a man named Ellis to form Scottron and Ellis, Scottron decided to work alone. He opened his new firm at 211 Canal Street, where he invented several household objects, including an extension cornice. These items were so popular that he gave up the looking-glass business and concentrated on cornices. By then he had an agreement with the firm H. L. Judd & Co., located in New York City. That business employed forty men who worked constantly to manufacture Scottron's cornices. The business prospered, but as curtain poles became fashionable the cornices were no longer in demand. Then he diversified and began to manufacture curtain poles.
In 1882 Scottron became a traveling salesman and general manager for John Kroder, a German American whose export-import business was located at 13 Baxter Street in New York City. During his twelve years with Kroder, Scottron invented and patented an extension curtain rod. He bought and sold carloads of goods, which made both men prosperous. Scottron traveled throughout Canada, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Victoria, British Columbia. In the states he avoided the South due to segregated housing accommodations, but his work took him as far away as San Francisco.
Fortunately, Scottron patented at least some of his inventions and gained royalties from them. He obtained patents for an adjustable window cornice (February 17, 1880), a cornice (January 16, 1883), a pole tip (September 30, 1886), a curtain rod (August 30, 1892), and supporting bracket (September 12, 1893). Some of his inventions were never patented. One of these might have been what Gail Lumet Buckley in The Hornes called a "leather hand strap device" that trolley car passengers used for support when standing. It was this device that made him rich, according to Buckley.
In 1894 Scottron perfected a way to make glass look like onyx and other attractive stones; he called his product "porcelain onyx." By now his daughters were mature young ladies who, along with his wife, helped him in the production. Together the Scottrons manufactured several thousand tubes to be mounted into brass lamps and candlesticks. Four large firms in Connecticut manufactured the items. Scottron never sought a patent for this process. He envisioned making the porcelain onyx into pedestals. "We shall not stop at pedestals and tables," he wrote in Colored American Magazine, "but in a short time, hope to have the porcelain onyx tubes used inside architectural decorations, such as are made for church ornamentation, bar room and barbershop mirrors, mantle mirrors, pier mirror front and many ways too numerous to mention." In time, onyx went out of fashion and he stopped the process.
Still in business after the turn of the century, Scottron continued to promote his company and his products. An advertisement for Scottron Manufacturing Company in the Colored American Magazine for October 7, 1904, noted that the company made pedestals, tabourettes, lamp columns, and lamp and vase bodies. For these items they used imitation onyx, agate, fossil wood, and various pottery finishes from the United States and abroad. This prosperous business was located at 98 Monroe Street in Brooklyn and, of course, carried items he had patented.
Education Called Key to Success
Reflecting on his life, Scottron noted in the Colored American Magazine: "I did not begin business life as a manufacturer, but as a merchant and trader." He cautioned that "whatever line, professional or business, a man enters upon, he should have such education as befits that line, if he wishes to succeed." When he recognized that he had "inventive genius" and used it to make adjustable mirrors, which he says he patented, he acquired the education he needed by studying mechanics under a master mechanic. He became skilled in work with brass, iron, and glass by working in various foundries in Springfield, Massachusetts. That set the foundation for his prosperous future. He continued his studies for seven years at Cooper Union, a free school that Peter Cooper established in New York to provide public education, and graduated in May 1875, with a degree that Gail Lumet Buckley called "Superior Ability in Algebra." Some sources claim that he graduated in 1878. He was awarded one of the four medals given at graduation.
His interest in education caught the eye of Mayor Charles A. Schieren, who in 1894 appointed Scottron to the Brooklyn board of education. He was reappointed by Mayor F. W. Wurster and again by Mayor Van Wyck, of the consolidated city of Greater New York. Altogether he held the post for eight years, serving as the board's only black member; he never missed any regular or special meetings. He also attended all committee meetings and served on several of the board's most important committees. Although his duties remain unidentified in published sources, Scottron was actually placed in charge of many schools. Five black schools were in the system at the time of his appointment, and by the end of his term all except one was closed and the black teachers distributed to racially mixed schools and classes. When his term ended, New York City mayor Seth Low refused to renew his appointment, which some viewed as a result of pressure from the predominantly white district in which Scottron lived. The fact that only one black school remained in the district by then may also have had some influence on the mayor's decision. Fellow inventor Lewis Latimer (1848–1928) of electric light fame came to his defense in 1902, according to Rayvon Fouché in Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation, to "defend a gentleman of his social, intellectual, and professional class." As an advocate for Scottron, Latimer facilitated the submission of a petition appealing to the mayor's "sense of humor" stressing that, due to his "good and faithful service" he should be given "a position equally honorable." He should retain the prestige that the school board post provided, the petitioners believed. Although they were unsuccessful in their attempt, the petitioners and others held a tribute to honor Scottron on May 9, 1902. Clearly, Scottron and Latimer had a common bond and deep respect for each other.
Scottron consistently fought for better educational facilities for blacks. In doing so, he joined local African Americans of prominence, including Edward Valentine Clark Eato, Peter Guignon, Peter W. Ray, Charles Lewis Reason, and Philip A. White. These men and their families were school administrators, teachers, druggists, and members of various professional groups. While New York, especially Harlem, was pro-Booker T. Washington and supported at least some of his views and strategies, Brooklyn, where the city's black aristocrats lived, opposed him, the exception being Samuel Scottron. In fact, the Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 7, shows that about fifteen people, including philanthropist George Foster Peabody, W. E. B. Du Bois, Scottron, and others, attended a private conference to discuss the welfare of blacks in New York City. Out of this and similar meetings grew the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York City—an organization in which Booker T. Washington had an interest.
Becomes Activist and Writer
By 1872 Scottron demonstrated an interest in the Cuban war and worked with the abolitionist Reverend Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882) to form the Cuban Anti-Slavery Society. Garnet was founding president and Scottron founding secretary. Two years later, after extending the society's scope to include labor, they renamed it the American Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and kept in close touch with the British Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Quoted in Booker T. Washington's The Negro in Business, Scottron said, "To the moral force of these societies we ascribe the extinction of slavery in Cuba and Brazil, and the slave trade in … Africa." Scottron also traveled and lectured widely during this period, as he promoted the work of the organization. At some point in his life he was secretary of the National Liberal Republican Committee.
Scottron spent thirty-five years as an occasional writer for newspaper and magazines, often writing on race matters. He lashed out at the displacement of blacks by whites in such occupations as barbering and catering. His articles were published in a number of periodicals, including the New York Age, the Boston Herald, and the Colored American Magazine. At some point he was editor of the latter publication.
Samuel Scottron believed that black forefathers in New York were far superior to those of the early twentieth century; thus, he spent his last years gathering a library on the history of African Americans in New York, chronicling their past and extolling their values. His work in this area may be seen in the article "New York African Society for Mutual Relief—Ninety-Seventh Anniversary," published in the Colored American Magazine for December 1905.
Scottron belonged to the Cooper Union Alumni Society and the Brooklyn Academy of Sciences; both memberships confirmed his reputation as a scientist. Other memberships may have included the Society of the Sons of New York, comprised solely of blacks who were born in New York and/or those who were highly respected. The Scottrons were among those active in the founding in 1884 and early development of the society. The society was most active each April, when it hired an orchestra for its annual ball and had the food catered. He held membership in an elite temple founded in pre-Revolutionary Boston, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (33rd degree Mason). In 1879 he was elected grand secretary general of its supreme council of the United States and held the post for several years.
Scottron married Anna Maria Willet, a Native American who was born in Peekskill, New York, in 1844. The date of their marriage is uncertain, however; some claim that he married when he was nineteen years old, which would have been around 1862, while Gail Lumet Buckley claims that Scottron met Willet when he traveled as a glass salesman, which would have been later. Whatever the case, Anna Willet shared with the Scottrons her heritage—the Algonquian nation. They married and settled down in New York City and by 1888 bought their tall, narrow, brownstone home located at the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Monroe Street in Brooklyn. They had three daughters and three sons. Cyrus, the youngest son, married Brooklyn schoolteacher Louise Ashton; their daughter—Samuel Scottron's granddaughter—was actress and singer Lena Horne. Historically, the Scottrons were staunch Episcopalians. Samuel worshipped at St. Philips in Manhattan as well as St. Augustine's in Brooklyn, which Gail Buckley referred to as "two bastions of elite Episcopalianism." Willard B. Gatewood in Aristocrats of Color described New York's black upper crust of the late nineteenth century as those who were free born, West Indian émigrés, Northern-born, were connected by marriage, and so on, who included the Rays (the educators), the Guignons (including Peter the chemist), the Philip A. Whites (wealthy druggists), and the Scottrons. They were close-knit and socially exclusive, forming New York's best society. Inasmuch as they belonged to the same clubs, social organizations, and other groups, and even vacationed together, it follows that they would also worship together; hence, the select churches that they attended were known for their "conservative respectability."
Samuel Scottron was a very entertaining, refined, and courteous man. According to the Cleveland Gazette, he was a fine lecturer and "a splendid conversationalist." He also had great executive abilities which he put to good use in his business ventures. He became prosperous, and at one time had real estate and other properties valued at about $60,000, a handsome sum for that period. He died in 1905. Published works have yet to give this inventor and shrewd and prosperous businessman the highly visible place in biographical works that he deserved.
Baldwin, William Henry Jr. "Letter to Booker T. Washington, January 23, 1903." The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 7, 1903–4. Eds. Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Buckley, Gail Lumet. The Hornes: An American Family New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
"Charles William Anderson to Booker T. Washington, July 28, 1904." The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 8, 1904–6. Eds. Louis R. Harland and Raymond M. Smock. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Fouché, Rayvon. Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Scottron, Samuel R. "Manufacturing Household Articles." Colored American Magazine 7 (October 1904): 620-24.
ȕȕȕȕȕȕ. "New York Society for Mutual Relief—Ninety-Seventh Anniversary." Colored American Magazine 9 (December 1905): 685-90.
Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
Washington, Booker T. The Negro in Business. Boston: Hertel, Jenkins & Co., 1907.
"Samuel Scottron." The African American Experience in Ohio, 1850–1920. Cleveland Gazette, 4 September 1887. http://dbs.ohiohistory.org/africanam/page.cfm?ID=15395 (Accessed 14 February 2005).