Black History Month Op-Ed: Recognizing Unsung Heroes & Paying it Forward

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides. As part of this series, we have asked key thought leaders in footwear, fashion and diversity to contribute editorial content.

Every February, I am reminded of all of the amazing contributions black people have made in America.

And every year, I hold out hope that the footwear industry would honor a black man who revolutionized the way shoes are made.

Well, 136 years late, I am introducing you to Jan Ernst Matzeliger.

Born Sept. 19, 1852, to a mother who was a slave and whose father was her owner, Matzeliger developed a natural aptitude for machinery and mechanics by age 10. In 1877, he moved to Massachusetts to pursue an interest in the shoe industry by working at the Harney Brothers Shoe factory.

He noticed the greatest difficulty in shoemaking was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper because it required great skill. In 1883, Matzeliger obtained a patent — one of six he ultimately received — for his invention of an automated shoe laster, which increased production from 50 to 700 pairs a day.

Matzeliger sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention, without eating, over long periods of time until on Aug. 24, 1889, three days shy of his 37th birthday, when he died from tuberculosis, having never seen any profits from his invention.

I share this story because I am inspired and humbled by his contributions to the footwear industry. But I am also saddened by the fact that, like Matzeliger, many other black people helped build this industry over the last 136 years into what it is today, and the industry does not know we exist.

I am writing this to bring awareness of the impact of black people in the footwear industry this month — designated Black History Month. But honestly, we are simply history, and I would love to see the day when our contributions are celebrated every month, and not only during the shortest month of the year.

Just as it was with Matzeliger, the footwear industry has not been to kind to us. Because after 136 years, we still are struggling to be recognized. Our relationship with this industry is pretty one-sided. We are paid millions of dollars to endorse and sell products. And billions annually are spent to encourage us to buy products. Sadly, our industry spends very little time or money letting us know we have a potential future in it.

In 1989, I got my start as a professional footwear designer, and to date, by my latest count, there are fewer than 150 black footwear designers in the entire footwear industry. Instead of complaining about these numbers in 2010, I retired from a celebrated career at Jordan Brand to found Pensole Academy. I did this to help create a future for talented black designers globally — simply because nobody else noticed we weren’t represented.

Partnering with some of the industry’s top suppliers, footwear companies and retailers, almost 75 of those 150 I just mentioned are former Pensole Academy students from its eight short years of existence. Our goal with Pensole is to show the footwear business that when it provides us an opportunity to do more than endorse and buy shoes, we can help create an industry that better reflects the consumers that drive it.

Diversity may be a buzzword today, but it is the future.

I hope next month, I am back to introduce you to someone else you might never have heard of but is also an important part of history.

D’Wayne Edwards is a 30-year footwear industry veteran who spent time as design director for Nike’s Jordan brand before creating the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in 2010. Edwards’ goal is to give talented young students — regardless of socioeconomic background — an opportunity to learn from the industry’s best without financial barriers and to provide the industry with a farm system for the next generation of footwear designers. 

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