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The Real McCoy and Other Stories from Black History Month


Life + Learning

  • Elijah McCoy
    Elijah McCoy, African-Canadian Inventor

Meghan, Queen's Square | February 1, 2018

Ever wonder where the phrase “the real McCoy” comes from?

There are many versions of this term’s origin, with experts still debating which is most likely to be true. One of these apocryphal stories is that “the real McCoy” is a reference to the inventor, Elijah McCoy. A black Canadian from Colchester, Ontario, McCoy studied to become a mechanical engineer and created a special drip cup to lubricate factory machinery, a dangerous task that previously often relied on child labourers to maneuver in tight spaces between moving gears. Often imitated but never replicated, McCoy’s device was tremendously popular and sources claim that factory owners asked for it by name as “the real McCoy"

This is just one of the stories worth discovering during Black History Month, a great time to learn more about the legacy and continued impact of black Canadians in building this country.

Another valuable piece of history comes in the story of Viola Desmond, the first Canadian woman to be featured on the face of a Canadian bill. A teacher, entrepreneur and political activist who fought against segregation, Desmond risked jail time and fines to stand up for her right to be seated in a movie theatre that had been reserved as “whites-only”. On Dec. 8, 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond would appear on the face of new ten dollar bills to be issued starting this year.

There are many similar profiles in courage featured on the official website for Black History Month in Canada and on Historica Canada’s Black History Month website.  Whether you’re interested in political gamechangers such as Leonard Braitwaite and Mary Ann Francis, enterprising publishers such as Mary Ann Shadd or cultural icons like Measha Brueggersgoman, Drake and Oscar Peterson, there’s a wealth of history to appreciate.

Here at the Idea Exchange, we’ll be featuring a display from the Archives of Ontario in honour of Black History Month at our Queen’s Square location. We will also showcase items from Idea Exchange collections featuring black historical perspectives and cultural contributions, resources worth sharing during this celebratory month and every day of the year.