Black History Edition: Alexander Miles


Public domain image, Courtesy Duluth Public Library

A portrait of Alexander Miles was taken of him in 1895.

Leah Fleurinor, Staff Writer

Alexander Miles was the African American inventor who designed an automatic open and closing elevator door. John W. Meaker invented the first-ever automatic elevator door system, but it still had to be manually opened.

On May 18, 1838, near Circleville, Ohio, Alexander Miles was born. Around the early 1860s, Miles moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin to be a barber. He met his wife, Candace J. Dunlap, a white woman born in New York City, while moving to Winona, Wisconsin. They had a daughter named Grace who was born in April 1879. After the birth of Grace, the family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota.

Miles operated a barbershop at the four-story St. Louis Hotel and purchased a real estate office. His wife was a dressmaker. Miles because the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce and built a three-story brownstone building at 19 West Superior Street in Duluth. This area is commonly known as the ‘Miles Block.’ It was around the time Miles was inspired to work on elevator door mechanisms.

While being on one with his daughter, he noticed the shaft door was left open. He often found people forgetting to close the shaft doors before using the elevators. Miles decided to fix the flaw in John W. Meaker’s invention, which was the continuous risk of danger associated with elevators.  This inspired him to create a safer door system that was automatic.

I’ve asked a student of Santaluces what they thought about Alexander Miles and how life would be if we did not have automatic elevator doors, and this is what she had to say.

“To be honest, with how modernized the 21st century is, we would not survive as much as how we are with automatic elevator doors. Life would be miserable because there would be so many fights between people rushing towards the elevators to get to work and the people who were already waiting for their turns for several minutes.”