A quick scan of an American history textbook would have you think that the white population produced the only movers and shakers of the nation. White politicians, aristocrats, and military figures receive whole chapters, while influential people of color are lucky to get a footnote.
One such overlooked individual was Garrett A. Morgan, a black man who invented the electric traffic signal, the gas mask, and a seemingly endless list of other patents. His entrepreneurial activism changed the sociopolitical landscape of Cleveland, yet his accomplishments have largely gone unacknowledged in the general narrative of our city’s history, often deliberately.
An accomplished inventor by his late teens, Morgan developed his prototype gas mask for fire departments and other workplaces that risked exposure to dangerous fumes. While marketing his “smoke hood” in the south, whites would not accept a black inventor; Morgan had to endure the indignity of hiring a white actor to play the device’s inventor instead of taking credit himself. Instead, Morgan would don Native American garb as a sales gimmick and demonstrate the mask’s effectiveness by entering a teepee filled with smoke.
An incident that would come to define Morgan’s life took place on the night of July 24, 1916, when a major explosion occurred in a water works tunnel, trapping workers underground in a cloud of deadly fumes and smoke. Three rescue parties entered the tunnel and did not return. As the situation grew desperate, Morgan was called at 3 a.m. to bring his prototype gas mask in an attempt to retrieve any survivors. He rushed to the scene barefoot in his pajamas.
“I called for volunteers to go with me in the tunnel,” Morgan later wrote of the incident. “No one would go.” Recognizing their inaction, Morgan, while not a professional rescue worker, put on a mask himself and entered the tunnel, accompanied by his brother, Frank, and two others.
Morgan and his brother each emerged with a victim of the blast on their backs, with the other two rescuers in tow. This persuaded the skeptical rescue workers to don masks and enter the tunnel themselves. An account by the NAACP points out “Mr. Morgan was the only man who could be found who had the required nerve to lead the third rescue party.” Morgan, disregarding his personal safety, entered the tunnel three more times before getting too sick to continue.
Six men were brought out, only two survived, highlighting the danger faced by Morgan and the rescue party members. It was a daring rescue effort, afterwards the city publicly celebrated the heroics of all the rescuers.
His white counterparts, men whom Morgan courageously led, were awarded medals by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission and financial compensation for their efforts. Morgan was not recognized in newspapers and efforts to recognize him were unheeded or blocked.
“The newspapers would not print anything I did,” Morgan later wrote. “[Cleveland] Mayor [Harry] Davis has the rest of the men testify in Court, but would not let me get on the stand.” He concluded, “His reason for this I cannot tell, unless it was because I am a negro [underlined].”
A letter from the CHFC flatly stated, “While the act performed by Mr. Morgan is commendable, from the facts at hand it does not appear that it was attended by any extraordinary risk to his own life; and for this reason his case, I regret to say, does not come within the scope of the fund.”
Much to the contrary, Morgan’s health was impacted by the rescue effort for years, as the concentration of fumes in the tunnel was beyond the capabilities of his gas mask.
“Since that time, Mr. Morgan’s physical condition has constantly grown worse,” wrote a doctor treating him a decade after the rescue. “So much so until in recent years his physical condition has become quite alarming.”
Morgan petitioned for compensation on the grounds of injury while performing a public service, only to have his claims of injury denied.
In a letter protesting his snubbing to Davis, who personally eyewitnessed his heroics, Morgan wrote, “The treatment accorded me … is such as to make me and the members of my race feel that you will not give a colored man a square deal.” Mayor Davis personally blocked hearings about his heroics.
In spite of his unfair treatment by Cleveland’s government, Morgan was heavily involved in local politics, emerging as a civic leader for Cleveland’s underrepresented black community. He went on inventing products and devices until old age.
The trauma of the rescue stuck with him throughout his life, later recalling the event, “When I shut my eyes, I can still see the men curled up in that death chamber.”
In 1962, a year before his death, the Division of Recreation of Cleveland made a donation to the Negro History Committee in his honor. It would be the only time the city of Cleveland formally recognized his heroics during his lifetime.