Untold Stories of Black History Month: Garrett A. Morgan, “Black Edison” of Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It was a scorching July night in 1916 when, just before midnight, a pocket of gas exploded 120 feet below the surface of Lake Erie.

The blast tore through a 10-foot-wide underwater tunnel that was being built to pull cooler drinking water for Cleveland five miles into the lake, away from polluted shore.

The blast left 11 tunnel workers dead and a plume of noxious smoke from the rubble.

Two rescue teams were dispatched to search for survivors, but 11 of the 18 rescuers were soon overwhelmed with carbon monoxide.

Desperate to save anyone still alive, the Cleveland police called Garrett Morgan, a local inventor, who called himself “the Black Edison”. Morgan had patented a breathing device two years earlier.

He and his brother, Frank, put on what Morgan called “the safety hood,” entered the tunnel, and got the survivors to safety. But the next day, accounts from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times failed to mention his involvement.

Morgan would spend the rest of his life fighting for recognition for his work.

Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky. Her father was the mixed-race son of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and an enslaved black woman. His mother – half black and half Native American – was the daughter of a Baptist minister. He had only attended school until sixth grade.

As a teenager, Morgan moved to Cincinnati, where he worked as a handyman’s apprentice and taught himself how things mechanical worked. He arrived penniless in Cleveland two years later and found work repairing and building sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer.

In 1907, he opened his own sewing and sewing machine business.

Even though his business ventures were successful, they did little to satisfy him. It was his workshop where he tinkered with new ideas that fueled his passion.

It was her experience in the garment industry that inspired Morgan to create the safety hood device after 146 garment workers – mostly young immigrant women – were killed in March 1911 when a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company of New York.

Morgan’s breathing apparatus was soon used by the United States Army to protect soldiers on the front lines throughout World War I. At home, it was eventually purchased by over 500 northern cities for use by their firefighters and police officers.

As Morgan’s demand for breathing apparatus grew, he established the National Safety Device Company in 1913 to manufacture and promote the safety hood. As the company’s chief executive, Morgan was the only non-white officer in his company.

A year later, his safety hood was used, with great success, by New York City firefighters to rescue victims of a subway disaster.

He urged his fellow blacks to buy stocks, but few did. Unfortunately, for those who didn’t follow through, the company’s stock price soared from $10 per share in 1914 to over $250 per share two years later.

Because racial discrimination was rampant in the South, Morgan hired a white actor to demonstrate the device to towns and businesses there. Once it was learned that its inventor was black, orders for southern towns and mining operations plummeted.

Morgan’s growing wealth allowed him to buy an automobile – the first black man in Cleveland to do so, and led to his second greatest invention, the precursor to today’s traffic light.

While driving, Morgan witnessed a horrific crash between an automobile and a horse-drawn cart, prompting him to upgrade the already existing traffic light. Prior to Morgan’s warning light, traffic lights only had “stop” and “go” positions and were manually operated, leaving them open to human error.

Morgan created – and patented – a three-position signal light, which included an “all-hold”, the addition of today’s amber warning light, in 1923.

He held three patents for traffic lights – in the United States, Canada and England. He sold those rights to General Electric Corporation for a one-time payment of $40,000.

Garrett used the money to buy 250 acres in Wakeman, where he built an African-American country club, complete with restaurants, dancing, and horseback riding. Small lots were also offered for sale.

Among his less advertised inventions were hair care items, sold through the GA Morgan Hair Refining Cream Co. While still running his sewing business, Morgan sought a solution to the burning of fabric by the needles of the sewing machine. While trying to invent a solution that would allow needles to pass through fabric quickly without damaging it, he accidentally discovered a liquid that would safely straighten African American hair. He also invented and manufactured a straightening iron comb with curved teeth and a black hair dye oil.

His hair care products were very popular and helped fund his other inventions.

But Morgan’s concern for the good of the community manifested itself in ways other than his inventions.

Unhappy with the way newspapers of the time covered the African American community, Morgan started his own – the Cleveland Call in the 1920s. The newspaper would later become today’s Call & Post and be published at Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

He was a founding member of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men and served as its treasurer until it merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1914.

He threw his hat into the political ring in 1931, running as an independent candidate for Cleveland City Council. He promised, “If elected, I will try to bring the people of the Third District to equal representation in the affairs of city government.” His platform included relief for the unemployed, more efficient administration, better housing conditions, better lighting, better sanitation, and better hospital conditions run by the city.

He was not elected.

In 1943 Morgan developed a severe case of glaucoma and lost 90% of his vision. He suffered from poor health for the rest of his life. Despite his blindness, he continued to work on his inventions.

His latest invention was a self-extinguishing cigarette, which used a water-filled plastic pellet placed just before the filter.

One of his last goals in life was to attend the Chicago Emancipation Centennial which was to be celebrated in August 1963. He did not quite achieve it. Morgan died at the Cleveland Clinic on July 27, 1963 “after persistent illness”, according to his obituary published in the Pittsburgh Courier, a major African-American newspaper.

He is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

More than half a century later, Morgan’s inventions would be on display at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

The Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant and the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science are named after him.

A 1945 photo of Garret A. Morgan, who in 1914 was granted a patent for a gas mask he developed. (AP picture)

Untold Stories of Black History Month

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