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It is not every engineer whose innovation has actually added a term to the English language, but so it was with African Canadian-born inventor Elijah McCoy. The automatic oiling device he invented in 1872 revolutionized steam train technology. It was much imitated, but his own version was so much more effective that for many railroads, only the “real McCoy” would do. 


The son of freedom-seekers from Kentucky, Elijah was born on March 2, 1844, in Colchester, Canada
West (Ontario). His parents were George and Millie McCoy. Although born a slave, George had been
freed by his white father, Henry McCoy, a tobacco grower and cigar manufacturer, at the age of 21.
However, Millie was enslaved to the Gains family 1 and thus any children the McCoys might have were
destined, under American law, to be enslaved as well. They fled to Canada in about 1837 with the help
of the Underground Railroad. 

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This article was written by:

Karolyn Smardz Frost, Ph.D


An archaeologist, historian and award-winning author, Karolyn Smardz Frost holds a PhD in Race, Slavery and Imperialism and is an adjunct professor at both Acadia University and Dalhousie Universities in Nova Scotia, where she and her husband now make their home. In January 2018, Karolyn Smardz Frost was honoured by the Ontario Black History Society with the Mathieu Da Costa Award for her lifetime contributions to researching, teaching and publishing in the field of African Canadian History. Her landmark biography of freedom-seekers Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007), was the first book on African Canadian history to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. In 2016, Karolyn co-edited A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland (2016), which won the Michigan Book Prize. Karolyn's newest volume, Steal Away Home (HarperCollins Canada) tells the story of Cecelia Jane Reynolds, who at the age of fifteen fled her Kentucky by way of Niagara Falls. It received the Speakers Award for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; the J.J. Talman Prize for the best book on Ontario history over the past three years; was a finalist for the Atlantic Book Award; and is a contender for the Heritage Toronto Award. 

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