1877, Paris, KY
1963, Cleveland, OH
Unable to sell his gas mask to fire departments in the South, Morgan hired an actor friend to pose as an inventor while he dressed up as an Indian chief. The actor would announce that Big Chief Mason would go inside a smoke-filled tent for ten minutes. When Morgan emerged after 25 minutes unharmed, people were amazed. Business boomed.
Photos: Western Reserve Historical Society
Affordable Gas Masks
The African American inventor of a life-saving device, mechanical traffic signals, and more had to fight for recognition.
Son of Freed Slaves
Garrett Morgan's safety hood saved the lives of countless firefighters and others. He was born in Kentucky during the Reconstruction era, in 1877. His father was the mixed-race son of a slave and a Confederate colonel, John Hunt Morgan. His mother, half Indian and half black, was the daughter of a Baptist minister. His race would impact Morgan's career profoundly.
Though Morgan only had a sixth-grade education, he had a mechanical genius and an entrepreneurial bent. Finding work in a textile factory, he learned how the machines worked, and became the only Negro adjuster, fixing and improving mechanical problems. In 1907 he opened his own repair shop, and soon launched a clothing business with his wife, an immigrant seamstress from Bavaria. It was an era of difficulty for African Americans, but Morgan made money, becoming the first black man in Cleveland to own a car. He branched out into cosmetic products, joined a new organization called the NAACP, and soon was donating money to Negro colleges. In 1920, he started a newspaper for African Americans, The Cleveland Call, and opened an all-black country club. In 1923, he patented a mechanical traffic signal that he sold to General Electric. It was widely used, yet Morgan earned only $40,000 for the invention.
The Safety Hood
Morgan's biggest venture was his safety hood. As a young man, he had seen firefighters struggling to withstand the suffocating smoke they encountered in the line of duty. In 1914 Morgan secured a patent for his device, a canvas hood with two tubes. Part of the device held on the back filtered smoke outward, while cooling the air inside. Morgan's safety hood won accolades and wide adoption in the North, where over 500 cities bought it, over time. He sold the hoods to the U.S. Navy, and the Army used them in World War I. But sales in the segregated South proved challenging. Morgan's hood got great press in 1916, when he used it to save workers in a collapsed tunnel under Lake Erie. But Cleveland's newspapers and city officials wrote Morgan -- who had ventured into the tunnel first -- out of the story, lauding other men and ignoring Morgan's heroism. It would take years for the city to recognize his contributions. Morgan died in 1963, vindicated as a hero of the Lake Erie rescue and restored to his place in history.