Photo credits: The Plain Dealer
Garrett Augustus Morgan was born on March 4, 1877, in the state of Kentucky. He eventually became a prominent inventor and businessman who was engaged in the concerns of Cleveland, Ohio’s black community.
Some of his most significant innovations were an early gas mask and a traffic light, both of which are still in use today. At the age of 14, Morgan left his home in Paris, Kentucky, to work in Cincinnati, Ohio — while also paying for his own education via the use of a tutor. Morgan was the son of Sydney and Eliza Reed, both of whom were former slaves in the Confederate state of Kentucky.
The possibility that Morgan might have been the grandson of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan has long been speculated — albeit the dearth of historical sources makes this difficult to confirm.
On June 17, 1895, he arrived in Cleveland. The next year, Morgan opened his own store on W. 6th St. in Chicago, where he repaired and sold sewing machines. After working for numerous garment manufacturers as a sewing machine adjuster, Morgan decided to go into business for himself.
A tailoring business was established by Morgan in 1909. He employed 32 people to produce suits, dresses, and jackets. In 1913, he formed the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Co. to commercialize a hair-straightening solution that he found by accident in 1905 and began using. This firm quickly expanded its product offerings to include a full range of hair-care items.
Following the Cleveland Waterworks explosion on July 25, 1916, Morgan invented a safety helmet to protect the wearer from smoke and ammonia, introducing his “Breathing Device” in 1912, patenting it in 1914, and using it to descend into a gas-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie to rescue workers and recover bodies.
In 1923, he purchased a property in Wakeman, Ohio, and used it to build the Wakeman Country Club, which was mostly comprised of African-Americans. Morgan married Madge Nelson in 1896, and the couple divorced the following year in 1898. In 1908, he tied the knot with Mary Hasek. He was the father of three children.
Garrett A. Morgan died on July 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.