In the United States of America, the month of February is Black History Month. It is a time to remember the achievements of men and women of color made throughout the history of this country. From a time of slavery to a time of freedom that did not really feel all that free, to a movement that would change the nation forever, men and women of color have played key roles in making a better quality of life for all mankind.
In 1797, in Ulster County, New York, Isabella Baumfree was born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, slaves to Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. Isabella was one of 13 children. Isabella grew up speaking only Dutch until the age of nine, when she was sold to a new master, John Neely. John and his family only spoke English and frequently beat Isabella because of miscommunications. It was during her time with John that Isabella began her spiritual journey. Religion turned into her refuge. Isabella would have conversations with God in the woods and took to praying aloud during times of hardship. Isabella was sold twice more, eventually ending up as a slave to John Dumont of West Park, New York.
Isabella would later describe her treatment at the hands of John Dumont as “cruel and harsh.” No reason is given for this description, leading many historians to believe that she was sexually abused and harassed. In 1815, Isabella fell in love with a slave from another farm named Robert. The two had a daughter together, however, Robert’s master forbade the relationship and the two never saw each other again. Dumont then forced Isabella to marry an older slave named Thomas. Together, they had four children, one of which died.
In 1799, New York began negotiations to abolish slavery. The emancipation date was set for July 4, 1827. Dumont made a deal with Isabella; “if she would do well and be faithful,” he would release her one year before emancipation went into effect. Dumont did not hold up his end of the deal, claiming a hand injury made Isabella unproductive. Isabella continued working for him until she felt she had satisfied her obligation to him, at which point she left with her infant daughter. She explained, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Life remained hard for Isabella. She was given refuge at the house of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who defended her from Dumont when he tried to bring her back. Shortly thereafter, Isabella learned that her five-year-old son, Peter, had been illegally sold to a farmer in Alabama. With the help of Quaker activists, Isabella was able to go to court and have Peter returned to her. This was one of the first times in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court.
Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., was born in the town of Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. His father, Sydney, was a former slave and son of Confederate Colonel John H. Morgan. His mother, Eliza Reed, was also a former slave who happened to be half American Indian. At the age of fourteen, Garrett quit school and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to work as a handyman for a wealthy landowner. Garrett wanted an education and retained a tutor to instruct him during his stay in Cincinnati. In 1895, Garrett moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to work for a clothing manufacturer repairing sewing machines. It was at this job that Garrett made his first invention a belt-fastener for sewing machines.
In 1907, Morgan opened a sewing machine and shoe repair shop. In 1908, Morgan established the Cleveland Association for Colored Men and married Mary Ann Hassek, his second wife. They had three children together. In 1909, he and his wife opened, “Morgan’s Cut Rate Ladies Clothing Store,” where they employed 32 people making coats, suites, dresses, and other clothing.
Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., invented a traffic signal device after witnessing an accident. His device like others was manually operated; however, unlike other traffic signal devices Morgan’s could stop traffic in all directions to clear the intersection if needed.
Morgan’s greatest invention is a respirator safety hood. The hood allowed rescuers to go into a smoky building and rescue its occupants by using a damp sponge to cool the outside air while filtering the smoke from the air. It also had a hose attached that hung from the hood close to the ground allowing the person wearing the hood to breath clean air. In later years Morgan added an air pack to his safety hood. Morgan’s hood was the most widely used safety hood in the country. Unfortunately to attain that status Morgan had to hire a white man who claimed to be the inventor of Morgan’s safety hood.
In 1916, Morgan and three other men using Morgan’s respirator safety hood made a dramatic rescue saving workers trapped in a water intake tunnel being dug under Lake Erie, after a natural gas explosion and fire which took the lives of workers and the first police officers and firefighters who attempted to rescue them.
Garrett’s life is far too great to recount in a short article honoring him and recognizing his many contributions to the comfort and safety of the people of The United States of America during this, the final week of Black History month.
Garrett died in his home town of Cleveland, Ohio, on June 27, 1963.