GARRETT MORGAN STOPPED THE WORLD IN 1914 WITH THE INSTALLATION OF THE FIRST ELECTRIC TRAFFIC SIGNAL ON EUCLID AVENUE.
Destination Cleveland, the visitors' bureau, created this and the several other banners, denoting the impact of important figures from Cleveland history, including Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, Bob Hope and many other men. (Yes, they are all men.)
Unfortunately, as we learned, this banner is not accurate. The first “traffic signal” is credited to James Hodge, at that is the one which was installed on Euclid Avenue on August 5, 1914. This banner in its original version (which is very large, about five stories high) was posted prominently and for several weeks before being edited.
Be edited, I mean that a flap of plastic with the word “Cleveland” was placed over the words “Garrett Morgan.” The inventor’s name had been literally covered up.
The city itself had been credited with inventing the electric traffic signal.
Now, if that banner, if all of these banners, have been posted to induce civic pride, they have succeeded. I enjoy seeing them. I have even made a point of showing them off to visitors, and there have been many, many visitors these past few weeks.
I had drawn particular attention to the Garrett Morgan sign. I even took that picture of it. Because, you see, like a lot of local kids I had been taught that this was true, that Garrett Morgan had invented the first electric traffic light. It’s one of those you learn growing up in Cleveland; we invented the rock concert, Superman, the traffic light -- the traffic light invented by Garrett Morgan.
Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – July 27, 1963) was born in Kentucky, the son of a formerly enslaved person. He first moved to Cincinnati, and then to Cleveland in his late teens. His greatest accomplishments were in making things function much more successfully. He improved upon the sewing machine, the traffic light, and most notably the gas mask. These last two developments saved lives, though it was the first which led to his fortune, for his experiments with anti-scorching oils for use in electric sewing machines led to his developing products for the straightening of Afro-textured hair.
Just the weekend before the sign featuring his name was altered, I had indicated the sign to an old college friend who was visiting Cleveland for the first time, and her son, he of North African heritage. They were impressed. Her son knew about Garrett Morgan, but he didn’t know the inventor was from Cleveland.
The response was immediate. People first expressing the kind of wtf? that you find on social media. Very soon this turned to questioning the intent of those who first created and then edited the sign, and shortly thereafter emphasis on the fact that what was stated was not accurate in the first place.
Morgan did not invent the first stop light in 1914 (as stated on the sign) but improved on the original design with his version, which he patented in 1923.
As the meme I had created was widely circulated, I was accused of jumping to conclusions, that I was seeing racial injustice where none was present. Most galling to me was use of the incriminating hashtag #knowyourhistory because, mister, you know I know my history.
However, that huge banner had been up for over two weeks. It was already in place during the massive parade to celebrate the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 22, hundreds of thousands had the opportunity to read it featuring Garrett Morgan's name. I cannot be the only person who noticed the change. By merely covering the name of an historic, African-American inventor as a quick fix, they neutralized the intended power of the sign. Was the idea to celebrate the stop light, the city in which it was invented, or the man who invented it?
After all, there is an argument that the very first electric traffic signal with light was actually installed in Salt Lake City two years earlier.
SALT LAKE CITY STOPPED THE WORLD IN 1912 WITH THE INSTALLATION OF THE FIRST ELECTRIC TRAFFIC SIGNAL …
Did they edit the sign to say that? No, of course not.
Regardless, if I have not already made this obviously clear, Morgan’s name was also the only one on any of these banners commemorating a person of color. Surely the design team who created the original banner could create an alternate phrase to honor this important Cleveland inventor.
Well, today I had a very pleasant surprise.
However, now placed amidst those other signs I mentioned, those touting the fame of Ness, Hope and Freed, decals which fill the vacant windows of the Cleveland Athletic Club at the intersection of Euclid and East 12th Street, a new sign had been put up in a doorway.
RED LIGHT? GREEN LIGHT? WAIT A MINUTE. CLEVELANDER GARRETT MORGAN PATENTED THE THREE-POSITION TRAFFIC SIGNAL IN 1923.
Thank you, Destination Cleveland. Best wishes for a successful convention.