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This is a former slave, but he didn’t invent toilet paper

“Meet Hezekiah Walker, former slave and inventor,” reads text in a graphic posted on Facebook in Tanzania.

It shows a black and white photo of an elderly man sitting in a chair, holding a hat, with a walking stick resting on his leg.

“He was the black man who invented the toilet paper. He made it white on purpose.”

But what does the photo really show?

Library of congress

A Google reverse image search reveals that the man in the photo was indeed a former slave. But his name was William Green, not Hezekiah Walker.

The photo appears in a 12 June 2020 article on the US Sun website, headlined “Survivors: Powerful pics show former slaves in America as new Born In Slavery project tells their harrowing stories.”

Its caption reads: “William Green pictured on July 9, 1937, was a slave from birth until he managed to escape from his owner Edward Hamilton.” Slavery was outlawed in the US in 1865, with the 13th amendment to the country’s constitution.

We also found the photo on the US Library of Congress website, labelled “William Green, ex-slave, San Antonio” and dated 9 July 1937.

But was Green an inventor who came up with toilet paper?

‘The great toilet paper debate’

A Google search for the history of toilet paper returned the article “Toilet Paper - The Great Debate!”, published on the Hagley Museum and Library website on 17 June 2015.

“Joseph Gayetty is widely credited with being the inventor of modern commercial toilet paper in the United States,” the article says. “Gayetty's Medicated Paper was introduced in 1857, and was sold in packages of flat sheets.” 

Hagley Museum cites an 1891 patent issued to Seth Wheeler of Albany, New York, for “Wrapping or toilet paper roll”.

Africa Check emailed the Hagley Museum to ask if the names Hezekiah Walker or William Green featured in the history of the invention of toilet paper.

“I was unable to find any information about William Green or Hezekiah Walker in our collections,” Linda Gross, a reference librarian at Hagley, told us. 

Gross shared more research on the history of toilet paper by, including an article that examines toilet paper use over the past 150 years.

The article led us to a patent for tissue paper assigned to seven inventors. None of them is Walker or Green. – Grace Gichuhi


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