A few days ago, someone posted a story about Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions on Facebook. In case you didn’t know, LSDS graduated from the Oberlin Ladies’ Course in 1850 and is generally considered the first black woman to complete a four-year college course. Her speech, A Plea for the Oppressed, is a resounding call for solidarity and civil rights. I didn’t read the article, because I’ve read her actual letters, but I did watch as the post was overwhelmed by likes and comments. “Inspiring!” people gushed. “Who knew!”
And this is where my blood pressure began to rise, because I knew. I’ve known for years. I took the time to learn about my community and the wonderful people who lived there and tried hard to inspire people to care like I did. One HuffPo article and suddenly everyone does? Why even bother? At this point, it was all I could do to keep myself from digging through decades of Facebook posts to find the exact moment I shared the same story and no one noticed. “Guys, look,” I wanted to instruct, “I’ve been saying this for years so if you could all direct your praise to me now, where it obviously belongs, that’d be great.”
I can be horribly petty at times.
But I didn’t say that. I left the post alone and silently stewed in my own misery. If one HuffPo article can reach 100+ people I may never get the chance to engage, that’s amazing. These stories, the stories of driven people in small communities, are too important and far too often overlooked for me (or anyone else) to get possessive and clingy. Look at any era in U.S. history, and I bet the first three names that come to mind are men, and I bet those men are white.
(This is when some jerk is going to comment that, no, the first name that comes to mind when they think of the American Revolution is Phillis Wheatley. And, sure, yes, I’ve definitely been that jerk before but, in all honesty, despite years of studying everyone else, I still think of George Washington.)
The point is: representation matters. Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions is empowering because her story is so often erased from traditional narratives. She is inspiring because she fought against the very same odds in life that her story now faces in remembrance. George Washington is many things, but he is not a black child growing up in Cleveland. He is not a woman fighting just to be heard. Sometimes I think our narrow definition of what it means to be an American–white, middle-class, straight, male, Christian–stems from our narrow study of our country’s history. Stories like these matter because the more we learn and teach our children, the richer our understanding of our communities and the people who live in them.
Now that I’ve convinced you (hold your applause, please), I would like to share a story from my city’s history that fits in perfectly to what I’ve been trying to say. 100 years ago, a tunnel exploded five miles out and 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Nine workers were trapped inside; no hero who entered the tunnel returned until one man arrived on scene: Garrett Morgan.
Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky, the son of two former slaves. Like many black Americans, one of Morgan’s ancestors was a white slave owner who had had his way with a woman he considered his “property.” Born in the wake of Reconstruction, a botched and aborted attempt to get the South on board with civil rights, Morgan came of age in an era of Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North. When he moved to Cleveland in 1895, he beat the Great Migration generation by about a decade. In 1910, the black population in Cleveland was still only 8,000 strong. By 1925, that number had grown to nearly 34,000.
Morgan’s life took off during the Great Migration era. He married his wife, Mary, in 1908. She was a Bavarian immigrant he had met doing handiwork in a garment factory in the Warehouse District. Forbidden from fraternizing across racial lines, the couple quit their jobs and faced the world together. Mary was disowned by her family. Morgan struggled to find work, but his active mind and entrepreneurial spirit carried them through hard times. Before 1910, he had already sold his first invention and opened a thriving sewing machine repair shop in the heart of the city. By 1915, he had also created a complete line of hair and beauty products for African Americans and patented a safety hood for firefighters. He also invented the first traffic signal to include a middle warning between stop and go.
Morgan had a keen eye for marketing. To get the word out about his hair products, he bought a bus and installed an organ inside. He would drive around the city blasting music, and when people asked him what all the commotion was about, he took the opportunity to direct them to drug stores that sold his product. Knowing his safety hood would be less successful in the South if the race of the inventor was known, Morgan hired a white actor to portray the genius, while he played the role of assistant. He would create huge spectacles in which he demonstrated the effectiveness of his hood by running into burning buildings and coming out unharmed.
Garret Morgan’s success made him a hero of his community. He was a founding member of Cleveland Association of Colored Men and used his influence to lobby for civil rights in Cleveland. He was a member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, which filled the role of the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. in black communities where these entities did not exist. He created the Cleveland Call & Post, a newspaper devoted to reporting the news of the black community without prejudice. He used his money to buy land in Wakeman, Ohio, to create a safe space for black people to recreate and enjoy the outdoors. He was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car. He was a Big Deal…which ultimately brings us back to July 25, 1916.
At 3 a.m., the police arrive at Garrett Morgan’s house and explain what has happened in the tunnel under the Lake. Without hesitation, Morgan grabs as many of his safety hoods as can fit in his car and arrives on the scene barefoot and in his pajamas, ready to help. Of the dozens of people who had gone in to rescue the workers, Garrett Morgan was the only one to return. He saved lives, and his life was immediately forgotten.
Despite being called on by the government to do his civic duty, Morgan’s name was not recommended to the Carnegie Hero Fund for a medal of honor. Instantly outed as the inventor of the safety hood (which, by the way, had saved thousands of fire fighters’ lives), Morgan’s sales in the southern states immediately dropped. In 1917, he wrote to Mayor Harry L. Davis that, “the treatment accorded me…is such as to make me and the members of my race feel that you will not give a colored man a square deal.” In the 1950s, Morgan was still struggling for recognition of his heroism. “I was paid only in promises,” he lamented. “Nothing was ever done for me.”
The good news is that Garrett Morgan was eventually recognized by the city for his many contributions, and he was (thankfully) alive to receive most of the praise. The bad news is that stories like Morgan’s still aren’t told in equal proportion to those of men like Rockefeller. When asked “who built Cleveland?” the most common answers you’ll get are Tom Johnson, Amasa Stone, John D. Rockefeller, or (more likely) I Don’t Know.
Representation matters…Black stories are stories that matter. When all we see is a white [male, Christian, heterosexual, etc.] legacy, that’s all we’ll fight to protect. I’m not the first person to say it, and I won’t be the last. It’s time to change that.