Faces of Black History – Garrett Morgan

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Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) was an inventor who invented a type of respiratory protective hood (conceptually similar to modern gas masks), the first Traffic Light , and 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 and crazy fast 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 safety hood and smoke protector after seeing firefighters struggling from the smoke they encountered in the line of duty and hearing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.His device used a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air. He was able to sell his invention around the country, sometimes using the tactic of having a hired white actor take credit rather than revealing himself as its inventor. For demonstrations of the device, he sometimes 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 several men after a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.

Shortly after receiving his patent, Morgan had a chance to put his invention to the test. In 1916 a tunnel was being constructed under Lake Erie. One night, there was an explosion in the tunnel. Three separate rescue parties entered the tunnel — and never came out again. In desperation, officials familiar with Morgan and his device summoned him.

Morgan rushed to the scene wearing only pajama bottoms and carrying four of his safety hoods. Police and firefighters, having seen their compatriots descend into the smoky hole never to return, refused to go into the tunnel. Morgan, his brother and two volunteers put on the hoods and went in.

Morgan and his crew went into the tunnel again and again, pulling suffocating workers and rescuers to safety. Morgan even helped save the superintendent of the tunnel project by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him.

The feat gained much publicity for Morgan, winning him numerous medals and helping him sell his invention to fire departments across the country.

Cleveland’s newspapers and city officials initially ignored Morgan’s personal acts of heroism as the first to rush into the tunnel for the rescue, and it took years for the city to recognize his contributions.Eventually, Morgan was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland and a gold medal for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Morgan’s invention of the safety hood was featured on the television show “Inventions that Shook the World.

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.

Compliments of MIT & Wikipedia

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