Most Cleveland area residents know that Garrett Morgan invented a gas mask used to help rescue people trapped in the Waterworks Tunnel Disaster of 1916, and that he patented the first three-position traffic signal.
But Morgan — who also held patents for sewing machine devices and a hair straightening product he discovered by accident — was more than just an inventor.
“He really had a natural aptitude for business,” says Patrice Hamiter, the African-American history archivist at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Morgan, the son of freed slaves, came to Cleveland as a young man from his native Kentucky. He established a sewing machine repair shop on West Sixth Street and, later, a tailor shop. Following the sale in 1923 of his traffic signal patent to General Electric for $40,000, he started buying land in Wakeman and founded the Wakeman Country Club for African Americans.
He was instrumental in the formation of the Cleveland Call and the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, which eventually merged with the NAACP. He also ran unsuccessfully for Cleveland City Council in 1931. “He really was a renaissance man,” Hamiter says.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, as well as in the Cleveland Magazine’s December issue, we incorrectly published the wrong photo for Garrett Morgan. The print photo shows Morgan’s home but the photo is not of him.
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