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Overcoming Discrimination by Consumers during the Age of Segregation: The Example of Garrett Morgan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 September 2012


From professional baseball to legal services, discrimination against sellers became widespread in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This article examines the means by which African American inventor-entrepreneurs overcame discrimination against them by consumers. It makes use of data from the advertising records of Garrett Morgan, who invented the modern gas mask and the traffic light. Both the deliberate use of measures, such as disguises and surrogates, and serendipity (the result of the racial neutrality of patents) were critical in facilitating sellers' anonymity and in promoting desirable economic outcomes.

Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2012

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The author thanks Jeff Biddle, Jeff Brown, Maggie Levenstein, and Trevon Logan for helpful comments; Yana Rodgers and Juliet E. K. Walker for helpful conversations; Chaleampong Kongcharoen for able research assistance; and the staffs of the Carter G. Woodson Collection at the Library of Congress and the Western Reserve Historical Society Library for enthusiastic assistance.

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4 Only six states—Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin—did not pass statewide laws imposing racial segregation between 1890 and 1930. Many of these Jim Crow laws were passed following the Supreme Court's repeal of provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883 and the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, in 1898. These data understate the magnitude of both laws and practices. Housing restrictions, for example, were largely promulgated by local and municipal governments. Further, not all discriminatory customs and practices were formalized through legislation. See Franklin, John Hope, From Slavery to Freedom, 7th ed. (New York, 1994)Google Scholar; Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York, 1988)Google Scholar; and Litwack, Leon F., Trouble in Mind (Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow) (New York, 1998)Google Scholar, for rich discussions of the context in which these laws were being created and their consequences.

5 Similarly, the number of African American consumers limited to patronizing African American firms would have increased due to intensified discrimination by white sellers against African American consumers.

6 Butler, John Sibley, Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics (Albany, 1991, 2005)Google Scholar, situates this history of black firms in the context of a broader history of entrepreneurship in community organizations.

7 Walker, Juliet E. K., The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship (New York, 1998), 182–83Google Scholar. A large literature arose during the period of interest to describe and encourage the “black” economy, including Du Bois, W. E. B., The Negro in Business (New York, 1899 [1971])Google Scholar; Washington, Booker T., The Negro in Business (Boston, 1907)Google Scholar; Harmon, J. H. Jr., Lindsay, Arnett G., and Woodson, Carter G., The Negro as a Business Man (College Park, Md., 1929)Google Scholar; and Harris, Abram L., The Negro as Capitalist: A Study of Banking and Business among American Negroes (Philadelphia, 1936)Google Scholar. In addition, in 1912, Tuskegee University's Monroe T. Work began publishing the Negro Yearbook and Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, which provided detailed, incremental evidence on growth and changes in this economy.

8 Ingham, John N., “Building Businesses, Creating Communities,” Business History Review 77 (Winter 2003): 639–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chronicles how southern blacks responded to increasing segregation and built vital new firms in the black community slightly before segregation became widespread in the North.

9 See Higgs, Robert, “Firm-Specific Evidence on Racial Wage Differentials and Workforce Segregation,” American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (Mar. 1977): 236–45Google Scholar; Margo, Robert A., “Educational Achievement in Segregated School Systems: The Effects of ‘Separate-but-Equal,’American Economic Review 76, no. 4 (Sept. 1986): 794801Google Scholar; Margo, Robert A., “Accounting for Racial Differences in School Attendance in the American South, 1900: The Role of Separate-but-Equal,” Review of Economics and Statistics 69, no. 4 (Nov. 1987): 661–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Margo, Robert A., Race and Schooling in the South, 1880–1950 (Chicago, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a detailed description and analysis of wage, income, and educational characteristics of southern blacks in the era of segregation; Maloney, Thomas N. and Whatley, Warren C., “Making the Effort: The Contours of Racial Discrimination in Detroit's Labor Markets, 1920–1940,” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 3 (Sept. 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a meticulous account of black workers' responses to labor-market discrimination; and Weems, Robert E. Jr., Desegregating the Dollar (New York, 1998)Google Scholar, for a detailed description of the African American consumer market at this time.

10 See Committee on Housing and Sanitation of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce (1918), cited in Kusmer, Kenneth L., A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Urbana, 1976)Google Scholar.

11 While it is unclear precisely when this practice started, the consensus in the literature suggests between the mid-1890s and the early 1910s. See, for example, Walker, The History of Black Business in America.

12 Wolff, Alexander, “Lost History: The NFL's Jackie Robinson,” Sports Illustrated, 12 Oct. 2009Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., 38. Capparell, Stephanie in The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business (New York, 2007)Google Scholar gives a detailed account of the stereotypes that existed in marketing to African Americans and how they changed with the growing number of black professionals employed by Pepsi Cola.

14 Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (New York, 1970)Google Scholar.

15 Brodie, James Michael, Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators (New York, 1993)Google Scholar; Sluby, Patricia Carter, The Inventive Spirit of African Americans (Westport, Conn., 2004)Google Scholar.

16 Henry E. Baker, Correspondence with Carter G. Woodson, Henry Baker Papers, Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress, 1914. In the completed surveys, Baker found both several hundred patentees and ignorance of African American inventors reported by patent agents and attorneys. Patent agents and attorneys were white until the 1970s.

17 Laird, Pamela Walker, American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (Baltimore, 1998)Google Scholar.

18 See the Advertising Ephemera Collection at the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing at Duke University for a rich and detailed collection of advertising images from this period.

19 Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Westport, Conn., 1994), 3031Google Scholar.

20 Ibid., 30–33. Nonetheless, early research by Edwards, Paul K. in the Southern Urban Negro as a Consumer (New York, 1932)Google Scholar showed that African American consumers often reacted negatively to the caricatured images and that advertising experiments using nond erogatory images, such as the one conducted by the Kellogg Company in the mid-1930s, increased revenues from sales in African American markets.

21 Aufhauser, R. Keith, “Slavery and Technological Change,” Journal of Economic History 34, no. 1 (1974): 3650CrossRefGoogle Scholar. More broadly, Wright, Gavin in The Political Economy of the Cotton South (New York, 1978)Google Scholar, argues that the southern slave labor market was at the center of a very costly system that sought to impede industrial development, which had been the chief source of technological advancement in the North.

22 In fact, during the age of the independent inventor and much of the nineteenth century, a number of inventors were illiterate. This included prolific inventors reviewed in Khan, B. Zorina and Sokoloff, Kenneth L., “‘Schemes of Practical Utility’: Entrepreneurship and Innovation among ‘Great Inventors’ in the United States, 1790–1865,” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 2 (1993): 289307CrossRefGoogle Scholar [updated 2004]; and Cook, Lisa D., “Inventing Social Networks: Evidence from African American ‘Great Inventors,’Explorations in Economic History 48, no. 4 (2011): 507–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A more serious problem for inventors would have been innumeracy, as models and drawings were required with a patent application.

23 For example, Harlan Greene, Harry S. Hutchins Jr., and Brian E. Hutchins review the formal slave-hire system in South Carolina between 1783 and 1865; Greene, Harlan and Hutchins, Harry S. Jr. with Hutchins, Brian E., Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865 (Jefferson, N.C., 2004)Google Scholar. T. Stephen Whitman examines wills filed in Maryland to obtain hire rates for slaves, particularly blacksmiths and shipwrights, between 1800 and 1825; Whitman, T. Stephen, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington, Ky., 1997)Google Scholar. Janet Sharp Hermann describes the varied skills that inventor Benjamin Montgomery acquired and used as a slave, including architecture, land surveying, and entrepreneurship; Hermann, Janet Sharp, The Pursuit of a Dream (New York, 1981)Google Scholar.

24 Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima.

25 Yancy, Dorothy Cowser, “The Stuart Double Plow and Double Scraper: The Invention of a Slave,” Journal of Negro History 69, no. 1 (1984): 5051CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 See Baker, Henry E., The Colored Inventor (New York, 1969, reprint of 1913 ed.)Google Scholar. The term “Patent Office” will be used interchangeably with “U.S. Patent Office” and “U.S. Patent and Trademark Office” throughout the article. The term “patent” largely refers to a utility patent, which is issued for any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Utility patents constitute the majority of patents granted in the U.S. While it is standard practice to use patents as a proxy for inventive activity and inventive activity that is commercialized (innovation), it should be recognized that this measure has limitations because, for instance, not all inventions are patentable or patented. However, direct measurement of invention is not generally possible and, in particular, not available, given the limitation of historical data needed for this study.

27 Gilfillan, S. C., The Sociology of Invention (Cambridge, Mass., 1935), 10, 112Google Scholar.

28 entry, Clayton, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University,, accessed 10 Nov. 2009Google Scholar. Such a move was ultimately declared illegal following a lawsuit by a black patron who was not allowed to enter on a “white only” night.

29 Bristol, Douglas Walter Jr., Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Baltimore, 2009)Google Scholar.

30 The evidence on consumer-side discrimination is not only scarce but it also cannot provide a distinction between the motives of prejudice and statistical discrimination. For example, the aforementioned attacks on Midwestern inventors, Boyd and McCoy, could have been attributed to either source. The targets of discrimination do not provide attribution of these sources nor do those reporting the events affecting African American sellers.

31 His civic affiliations and campaign for the Cleveland city council are detailed in Cook, “Inventing Social Networks.”

32 Interestingly, while Morgan owned a newspaper, very few of the newspaper clippings relate to his own products and services, which is suggestive that he did not use his own paper as a significant vehicle for promotion of his products and services.

33 While Morgan obtained a patent for a straightening comb in 1956, it is not included in this analysis. The only advertisements for the comb available in the Garrett Morgan Papers are dated prior to 1956. In the thirty-three years between the penultimate patent and the last patent, significant and independent changes had occurred in the advertising industry and in the racial climate. Further, Garrett Morgan developed a national and international reputation as an inventor by 1956, which may have changed his marketing strategy in a nontrivial way.

34 Moser, Petra, “How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from the World Fairs,” American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (Sep. 2005): 1214–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has recently shown the critical influence of fairs in the history of modern innovation. At many fairs, there was a “Negro building” where black inventors could pitch their inventions, or a “Negro day” during which only African Americans could visit a fair. For instance, Foner, Philip S., “Black Participation in the Centennial of 1876,” Phylon 39, no. 4 (4th qtr., 1978): 283–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reports that Joseph H. Dickinson, a prolific inventor of musical and mechanical instruments, could only display his inventions and view other exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 in the “Negro building.”

35 See King, William M., “Guardian of the Public Safety: Garrett A. Morgan and the Lake Erie Crib Disaster,” Journal of Negro History 70, no. 1/2 (Winter–Spring 1985): 113CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a rich description of the rescue and its coverage.

36 Haber, , Black Pioneers, 69Google Scholar.

37 Garrett A. Morgan Jr., Undated letter to Mr. Stang, Morgan papers. Morgan Jr. also ascertains in this correspondence that Garrett Morgan Sr. also used the name George Mason as an alias.

38 Letter to Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, ca. Feb. 1917, folio I-2, and Cleveland, Advocate, 29 July 1916Google Scholar, Garrett Morgan Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Cleveland, Ohio (hereafter, Morgan papers). Morgan and his supporters argued that the Carnegie medal for heroism should have been conferred on Morgan (and his brother) due to the dangerous and selfless nature of this act, a criterion for the medal.

39 Letter to Mayor Harry L. Davis, 25 Oct. 1917, folio I-2, and interview in the Cleveland, Advocate, 3 Feb. 1917, Morgan papersGoogle Scholar.

40 In the same year and following this event, Morgan created the Cleveland Call newspaper, which would become the most prominent and long-lived black newspaper in Cleveland. As the owner of a black newspaper, Morgan was very aware of issues related to objectivity and the power of press reporting.

41 Undated note from Garrett A. Morgan Jr. to Gordon Stang, Morgan papers. It was neither as easy nor as cheap then to do patent searches as it is now. Nevertheless, a curious member of the audience could have checked the name on the patent to refute “Big Chief Mason's” claim of being the inventor of this technology.

42 One of the most successful medicine-show firms was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, which is featured in Holbrook's, Steward H.Golden Age of Quackery (New York, 1962)Google Scholar. Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York, 2005)Google Scholar, contains a summary and appraisal of Native American technological achievements. Further, the assumption of a Native American identity by African Americans was widely used in American society as a way to circumvent new rules related to racial segregation. In 1901, Chief Charlie Tokohoma was slated to become a new second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, but he was not allowed to proceed from practice to play officially as an Oriole following the revelation that he was actually Charlie Grant, an African American baseball player for Chicago's “colored” professional baseball team, the Columbia Giants (Steadman, John, “Had Tokohoma Ruse Worked, O's Would Have Set Racial First,” Baltimore Sun, 20 April 1997Google Scholar).

43 Alliance, Ohio, publication, dated 1 Oct. 1913, Morgan papers, and “Want Highland Avenue Paved,” New Castle News (Penn.), 13 Mar. 1914Google Scholar, col. 2, 13.

44 Although no photographs accompanied these articles, it is reasonable to assume that a white surrogate was employed for these shows.

45 “About Morgan's National Safety Hood and Smoke Protector Spectacular Exhibit,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, 22 Oct. 1914Google Scholar.

46 Of course, such alliances would not be unique to African Americans. Thomson, Ross, Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age: Technological Innovation in the United States, 1790–1865 (Baltimore, 2009)Google Scholar, and Naomi Lamoreaux, Margaret Levenstein, and Kenneth Sokoloff, “Financing Invention during the Second Industrial Revolution: Cleveland, Ohio, 1870–1920,” NBER Working Paper no. 10923 (Nov. 2004), demonstrate that social ties related to invention were fundamental to innovation.

47 Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University,, last accessed 10 Nov. 2009Google Scholar. Reports in the Jewish Review and Observer and Jewish Independent suggest that Dreyfus, Hahn, and Sincere were all actively involved in Jewish civic and social activities.

48 Various correspondence, Morgan papers. Three names listed as trustees on the letterhead. Since full names were not used, just initials and surnames, there were no unique match results. Clearly, the names of the officers mattered more than those of the trustees, since officers' names were printed in full.

49 Correspondence, 10 May 1915, Morgan papers. Corresponding to the Safety Device Company stationery, the officers of the firm, Morgan family members, were listed in descending order. Unlike the organization of the Nadsco stationery, Garrett Morgan's name was listed first as president and general manager.

50 House-Soremekun, Bessie, Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland, Ohio (Kent, Ohio, 2002), 2425Google Scholar.

51 In addition to the presence of a racially ambiguous name, the inability of readers of the patent record to locate Morgan geographically would have helped to ensure his anonymity.

52 Haber, , Black Pioneers, 66Google Scholar.

53 House-Soremekun, , Confronting the Odds, 3435Google Scholar.

54 McCoy, Woods, and Morgan were inducted between 2001 and 2006.

55 Fouché, Rayon, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation (Baltimore, 2005), 79Google Scholar. See this volume for a detailed description of the practice of segregation and its implications for Woods's inventive career.

56 Lamoreaux, Naomi and Sokoloff, Kenneth, “Intermediaries in the U.S. Market for Technology, 1870–1920,” in Finance, Intermediaries, and Economic Development, ed. Engerman, Stanley L. et al. (Cambridge, U.K., 2003)Google Scholar.

57 Goldin, Claudia and Rouse, Cecilia, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review 90 (Sept. 2000): 715–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Congress, Resolution 269, 2002.

59 Hofer, Margi, Eidelberg, Martin, and Gray, Nina, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (London, 2007)Google Scholar.