Garret Augustus Morgan: Man behind the mask

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Janelle Fox
  • 1st Special Operations Equal Opportunity
When you think of famous people in black history who do you think of? The most popular answers are: Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. This article is not about any of these famous names we hear every year during Black History month. Instead, this article is about a man you have probably never heard of before, who impacted not only African American history, but the lives of military members as well.

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born March 4, 1877 in Kentucky and died in 1963. Although he had only an elementary school education he had a natural mechanical genius which helped him become a self-taught sewing machine mechanic. Also, he was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, opened an all-black country club and began a newspaper for African Americans called The Cleveland Call.

Over the years, he invented a number of different things including: an improved sewing machine, a traffic signal, cosmetics and a hair straightening product. However, one of his most famous inventions was the first prototype of the gas mask called the "safety hood" which was patented in 1914.

As a young man, Morgan saw firefighters struggling to withstand the suffocating smoke they encountered in the line of duty. The "safety hood" covered the head and upper torso and supplied clean air to the wearer through two tubes from a bag of air that hung on the back of the hood. There was some resistance to Morgan's invention among buyers particularly in the South, where racial tension remained. In an effort to counteract the resistance to his products, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor. Morgan would pose as the inventor's sidekick, disguised as a Native American man named Big Chief Mason who would wear the hood to enter areas otherwise unsafe for breathing. His tactic was successful but the "safety hood" did not get national attention until the Cleveland Tunnel exploded on June 25, 1916.

The city of Cleveland was drilling a new tunnel under Lake Erie for a fresh water supply. Workers hit a pocket of natural gas, which resulted in a huge explosion and trapped more than 20 workers amidst suffocating noxious fumes and dust. Someone at the scene had heard of Morgan's invention and contacted him. He awoke immediately and called his brother for assistance. They both came to the scene still wearing their pajamas and entered the tunnel. The brothers managed to save two lives and rescue four bodies before the rescue effort was shut down.

Despite Morgan's heroic efforts, the publicity that he garnered from the incident hurt sales; the public was now fully aware that Morgan was an African American, and many refused to purchase his products. The "safety hood was eventually sold to the Navy and Army who used it in World War I. Adding to the detriment, many reports claimed that it was not Morgan and his brother who had rescued the workers but instead two white men. It was not until many years later that Morgan and his brother got true credit for their efforts.

Garrett A. Morgan was an integral part of not only African American history but military history as well. He helped saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers who wore his invention in World War I. The prototype helped create the gas mask that protects each of our lives in hazardous situations today. Morgan's achievements and contributions will always be remembered and I hope that each and every one who reads this article will take the time to tell his story to someone else who may have never heard of this unsung hero.