Who was Garrett Morgan? Morgan was also an imaginative inventor and the creator of the “yellow light signal”. He was also a civil rights activist—making great strides for African Americans during a time of immense racial unease.
While many know Garrett Augustus Morgan as the man who made rush hour traffic a bit safer, he was so much more than that. Morgan used his education and perseverance to overcome the many obstacles thrown his way—most of which were rooted in Morgan’s African American heritage. It could have been so easy to give up, especially when Morgan had already made himself enough money to live comfortably. But Morgan continued to try new business endeavors and advocate for African American rights throughout his entire life, making him one of America’s least talked about civil rights heroes—let’s try to change that.
Garrett Morgan’s Early Life
Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. Being the seventh of eleven children, Morgan was only able to receive an education until elementary school. However, when Morgan was in his mid-teens he moved out on his own to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he received lessons from a private tutor.
To pay for his own education, Morgan fortunately found work as a handyman for a rich land owner. Later, Morgan worked at a textile factory—where his ingenuity began to unravel. After becoming the first African American “adjuster” at the textile factory, Morgan developed an improved sewing machine and even opened his own repair shop in 1907. This alone was an impressive accomplishment for an African American in the United States during the early 1900s—but Morgan didn’t stop there. Morgan is also credited with the invention of a hair smoother, a breathing device, and essentially improving the traditional traffic light—and the way you drive your car, even to this day.
Morgan’s contributions to society could not have come at a better time. In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s are often referred to as the height of the Civil Rights Movement—a turning point in the African American struggle for equal rights under U.S. law. While the mission is still not complete, Garrett Morgan was still able to distinguish himself back then in a culture completely dominated by white Americans.
Garrett Morgan: Making Strides During a Time of Repression
While the 50s and 60s may be known as the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the fight for equality began long before then. Although the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought an end to slavery in the United States (over a decade before Morgan was even born), African American discrimination was still quite prominent in American culture and law.
Despite American law and culture telling Morgan that he was “less than,” Morgan proved himself as equally capable as any other person in America—regardless of race. While Morgan was working at the textile factory, his quick thinking and inventive nature made him the first African American “adjustor” at the factory. Fixing and improving upon mechanical problems within the factory, Morgan became extremely familiar with the machinery.
After designing an improved sewing machine and opening his own repair shop—Morgan made an accidental invention. While trying to solve the problem of stray fabric fibers getting caught in the sewing machine, Morgan created a hair smoothing serum. This led to Morgan opening yet another business—the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. But Morgan still wasn’t done contributing to society.
In 1914, Morgan created what is now known as a gas mask, although back then Morgan called his invention a “breathing hood.” Since Americans seemed to be particularly fixated on race during this time, Morgan had to resort to hiring a white actor in order to sell his life saving invention. However, the tactic was successful, and Morgan was able to sell his invention, which was particularly popular amongst firefighters and rescue workers.
Morgan’s breathing hood was put to the test during a catastrophe in 1916 known as the “Cleveland Tunnel Explosion.” While drilling under Lake Erie for a fresh water supply, Cleveland workers accidentally hit a pocket of natural gas, causing a massive explosion that left the workers trapped underground and suffocating from toxic fumes and dust. Without hesitation, Morgan and his brother, Frank Morgan, rushed to the scene—saving two lives and rescuing four bodies.
Unfortunately, the attention Morgan received for his heroism publicly labeled the inventor of the “breathing hood” as an African American man, which caused many Americans to return their purchases of Morgan’s lifesaving gas mask. Despite this discouraging result, Morgan STILL didn’t lose his passion for inventing and improving.
Garrett Morgan and the Traffic Light
Garrett Morgan’s many inventions and contributions brought him a fair amount of wealth. It was this wealth that led Morgan to become the first African American man in Cleveland to own a car. While driving in traffic, Morgan couldn’t help but notice the countless accidents that occurred at traffic lights. At this time, traffic lights only had a red-to-green lighting system. The sudden stop and go signals caused many drivers to collide with one another, particularly at busy intersections.
This problem caused the inventive wheels in Morgan’s mind to start turning, and he came up with the idea of a 3-light traffic lighting system. Red for stop, green for go, and yellow for slow down. This seemingly simple addition revolutionized the way people drove their vehicles in traffic. As if daily traffic wasn’t strenuous enough, can you imagine dealing with it if there were no yellow lights?
It was quickly realized how useful Morgan’s improvement to the traffic signal was, which prompted General Electric to purchase Morgan’s patent on the invention for $40,000. Today’s modern traffic light systems are modeled after Morgan’s original design.
In the face of Morgan’s great success as a businessman and an inventor, he never forgot about his roots. In 1920, Morgan founded a weekly newspaper called the “Cleveland Call,” which focused on African American issues.
Morgan was also treasurer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a member of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. These organizations fought for African American rights and opportunities on a national and local level.
Garrett Morgan’s many accomplishments are especially impressive, even by today’s standards. But perhaps what is more remarkable is that Morgan achieved everything he did in a society seemingly determined to hold him back. Following his dreams, despite ridiculous laws and a judgmental society against him, Garrett Morgan shows us all that with some determination and hard work, anything is possible.