Monday, March 4, 2013

Garrett Morgan, born March 4, 1877

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, 12 years after the end of the Civil War to Sydney, a former slave and son of Confederate Col. John Hunt Morgan, and Eliza Reed, also a former slave.

Morgan moved at the age of fourteen 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, he 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.

Cleveland, Ohio

In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. He married his first wife, Madge Nelson, in 1896, but that marriage ended in divorce.

In 1907, the Prince-Wolf Company hired him to be their first black machinist. There he met an immigrant seamstress from Bavaria, Mary Anne Hasek. “They would engage in innocent conversations, until Morgan was warned by his supervisor that black men were not allowed to talk to white women in the company. Incensed at being told who he could and could not speak to because of his color, Morgan went to the Personnel Office and quit,” according to Renaissance magazine.  Morgan opened his own sewing machine and shoe repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would own. In 1908, he married his second wife, 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. He also made a black hair oil dye and a curved-tooth iron comb in 1910, to straighten hair.

His business was profitable enough to allow him to build a home at 5204 Harlem Ave. in Cleveland, where he later brought his mother to live, after his father died.

In 1916 he helped to found the Cleveland Call newspaper, and subsequently participated in a 1928 merger that created the Call and Post newspaper. 

Granddaughter Sandra Morgan remembers fondly the beautiful velvet coats with matching muffs that she wore as a little girl, all handmade by Mary. “My party coats, my summer clothes – my grandmother made everything.”

Garrett and Mary’s marriage lasted more than 50 years, until their deaths in the 1960s. Mary came from a big family, but she had little contact with her relatives after she married a black man. She was even excommunicated from her Catholic faith. Sandra Morgan, who still keeps Mary’s rosary and her Bible written in German, believes it hurt her grandmother deeply.

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 Reserve 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. 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. 

In 1923, he used some proceeds from sale to purchase a large piece of property near Wakeman, Ohio. There he created Ohio’s first black country club – a place where middle-class blacks could enjoy recreation like horseback riding, fishing and horseshoes. “The all-black facility, however, was not wanted in the area by local whites,” reported Renaissance magazine, which said that Klan members rode onto the property one night and burned a cross.  Morgan and his brothers ran them off with guns. The KKK never returned, and the club enjoyed uninterrupted success until Morgan lost the bulk of his money in the 1929 stock market crash. With a freeze on his savings account, Morgan sold 200 acres of the Wakeman land to pay the taxes on the remaining 200.

Morgan died on July 27, 1963, at the age of 86, and was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.  His headstone at Lakeview Cemetery reads simply: “By his deeds, he shall be remembered.”

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