Sunday, November 20, 2011

Garrett Morgan

“Drew up the load of barley this forenoon after helping Lettie some about washing.  It is so light they will not take the rest.  We cleaned up 28 bu for seed and will grind and feed the rest, about 75 bush.”

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) was an inventor who invented a type of respiratory protective hood (similar to the modern gas masks), credited with having a patent for a type of traffic signal, and invented a hair-straightening preparation. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in which he used his hood to save workers trapped in a tunnel system filled with fumes. He is credited as the first African-American in Cleveland to own an automobile.
At the age of fifteen, Morgan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of employment. Most of his teenage years were spent working as a handyman for a wealthy Cincinnati landowner. Like many African-Americans of his day, Morgan had to quit school at a young age in order to work. However, the teen-aged Morgan was able to hire his own tutor and continued his studies while living in Cincinnati. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. In 1920 he helped to found the Cleveland Call and Post newspaper.  He married Madge Nelson in 1896, but the marriage ended in divorce. Word of his skill at fixing things and experimenting spread quickly throughout Cleveland, opening up various opportunities for him.
In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing machine and shoe repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would own. In 1908, Morgan helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. That same year, he married Mary Anne Hassek, and together they had three sons. In 1909, he expanded his business to include a tailoring shop. The company made coats, suits, dresses, and other clothing. Morgan experimented with a liquid that gave sewing machine needles a high polish and prevented the needle from scorching fabric as it sewed. Accidentally, Morgan discovered that this liquid not only straightened fabric but also hair. He made the liquid into a cream and began the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. Morgan also made a black hair oil dye and a curved-tooth iron comb in 1910, to straighten hair.
Garrett Morgan patented a rudimentary safety hood and smoke protector after hearing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. He was able to sell his invention around the country, but would have a white partner take credit as the inventor in order to further sell his product. When he displayed it himself, he adopted the disguise of "Big Chief Mason", a purported full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Island Indian Reservation in Canada." His invention became known nationally when he and three other men used it to save two men from a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Morgan was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, but his nomination for the Carnegie Medal was denied, in large part because of his race.  Efforts by Morgan and his supporters over the years to correct this supposed injustice were not successful. Nevertheless, Morgan won gold medals for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs
The first American-made automobiles were introduced to consumers just before the turn of the 20th Century, and pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons and motor vehicles all had to share the same roads. Between 1913 and 1921, many different versions of traffic signaling devices, both mechanical and automated, were patented. Of these, only a few saw production or implementation on public roads. These include several three-color electronic systems very similar to those in use today. Morgan's device, patented in 1923, was a hand-cranked, manually-operated semaphore signal. A lack of documented evidence, photographic or otherwise, suggests that Mr. Morgan's signaling device was never put into production.
At the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois in August 1963, Morgan was nationally recognized. Although in ill-health, and nearly blind, he continued to work on his inventions; one of his last was a self-extinguishing cigarette, which employed a small plastic pellet filled with water, placed just before the filter. Shortly before his death, in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.
In Prince George's County, Maryland, the Prince George's County Board renamed Summerfield Boulevard to Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard in his honor. The adjacent Washington Metro's Morgan Boulevard Station was going to be named Summerfield, but was consequently renamed as well. Also named in his honor is the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Morgan on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Morgan was a Prince Hall Freemason (Excelsior Lodge No. 11 of Cleveland, Ohio) and an honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Morgan died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 86, and is buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

Newspaper photograph of Morgan's rescue in 1916

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