Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, the youngest of four children of Rebecca Latimer (1823 – August 13, 1910) and George Latimer (July 4, 1818 – May 29, 1896).[2]George Latimer had been the slave of James B. Gray of Virginia. George Latimer ran away to freedom in Boston, Massachusetts, in October 1842, along with his wife Rebecca, who had been the slave of another man. When Gray, the owner, appeared in Boston to take them back to Virginia, it became a noted case in the movement for abolition of slavery, gaining the involvement of such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for the freedom of George Latimer.[2]

Lewis Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863, and served as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a set square, ruler and other tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1872.[2]

He married Mary Wilson Lewis on November 15, 1873, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of William and Louisa M. Lewis.[3] The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette (June 12, 1883 – February 1978) and Louise Rebecca (April 19, 1890 – January 1963). Jeanette married Gerald Fitzherbert Norman, the first black person hired as a high school teacher in the New York City public school system,[4] and had two children: Winifred Latimer Norman (October 7, 1914 – February 4, 2014), a social worker who served as the guardian of her grandfather's legacy; and Gerald Latimer Norman (December 22, 1911 – August 26, 1990), who became an administrative law judge.

For 25 years, from 1903 until his death in 1928, Lewis Howard Latimer lived with his family in a home on Holly Avenue in what is now known as East Flushing section of Queens, New York.[5] Lewis Howard Latimer died on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80.[1] Some sixty years after his death, his home was moved from Holly Avenue to 137th Street in Flushing, Queens, which is about 1.4 miles northwest of its original location.[5