Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1877, the child of formerly enslaved parents. He completed schooling up through the sixth grade but had to go to work when he was fourteen.
Garrett was exceptional in understanding how things work. Early on he started inventing things. His mechanical aptitude had led him to work in a sewing machine factory, so some of his initial innovations focused on sewing machines. One of his inventions was a lubricant used on sewing needles to prevent fabric burning from friction. By accident, he discovered that the liquid could also straighten hair. He created a hair products company to focus on African-American hair styles. The incredible success of this company allowed Garrett to pursue other inventions.
Garrett’s most important invention may have been a safety hood he designed for firefighters to wear when entering a smoke-filled area. Firefighters faced the risk of smoke-related deaths or disabling injuries. Garrett’s safety hood was far superior to anything in existence at the time. In spite of the superiority of Garrett’s invention, he still faced resistance from fire departments because of his race. To get around this, Garrett hired a white actor to play the role of the inventor, while Garrett himself pretended to be a sidekick.
A real test for the safety hood came with a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916. After two rescue efforts failed, with a majority of the rescuers dying, Garrett was summoned in the middle of the night. He arrived at the scene in pajamas and entered the tunnel using his hood. He was able to save some of the survivors and recover some of the dead. In spite of his heroism in making four more trips into the tunnel, Garrett’s efforts were not acknowledged. Others received acclaim for the rescue in his place. Acceptance comes hard. When the U.S. entered World War I, the Army would not accept the devices produced by Garrett’s company and chose instead a British device.
It’s hard to imagine that a device that saves lives would be so hard to accept based entirely upon the race of the inventor. How many of us are aware of the inventors of the products we use? Probably few of us.
Now just imagine the powerful forces that would lead to rejection of a life-saving device because of the race of its inventor. You have to wonder what fuels such hatred. Just imagine how dispiriting it must be to have your race, not your ideas, to be the deciding factor in evaluating your work. Think about barriers to acceptance that still exist today, barriers that focus not on the quality of an idea but upon the perception of the person behind it.
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“Often, the greater our ignorance about something, the greater our resistance to change.”– Marc Bekoff (Biologist and behavioral ecologist)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.