When a black inventor disguised himself as Native American
That other reason black folks say they have ‘Indian in my family’
“I’ve got Indian in my family.” If you’re black, chances are you’ve heard the statement before. Black history is learned year-round, but this past Saturday was the first time I found out the other reason that some black folks connected themselves to Native American lineage. And thanks to WBEZ’s “How I Built This,” this was my first time hearing about how the 1921 Tulsa bombing not only tried to destroy African-American inventors; it also made them so desperate to get their products patented that they had to disguise themselves as other races — besides the obvious one for our light-skinned skinfolk.
Although I could pretty much guess the ending of the 2020 film “The Banker,” starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, somehow through all my black history lessons growing up, I never knew that Garrett A. Morgan had to do something similar to get his inventions acknowledged. While the story varies depending on who tells it, WBEZ’s version reminded me of the flick.
“[Morgan] would bring along a Native American,” said Lisa Cook, a Ph.D. student, on WBEZ. “And he’d have the Native American, sort of, give the pitch. And he was the Native American’s research assistant.”
However, according to Biography.com, instead of being the sidekick to a Native American, Morgan went one step further and disguised himself as a Native American man himself named “Big Chief Mason” to sell his gas mask invention. In a newspaper story published on October 22, 1914, Times Picayune described him as a “full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Reservation, Canada,” who stood in a smoke-filled tent (tar, sulfur, formaldehyde, manure) for 20 minutes just to prove his “large canvas helmet with eyepieces” was effective.
While I was aware of his traffic light contribution, my mind was blown upon further review (not in the WBEZ interview) to find out Morgan’s role in the 32 men who were trapped in a tunnel 282 feet under Lake Erie. I have met many firemen during my elementary school years and high school years (thanks to those fire alarm tests) — and coincidentally trotted around with a fire extinguisher inspector today to put on new tags — but Morgan’s contribution to firemen is one I missed altogether. You learn something new every day, huh?
Morgan’s disguise wasn’t completely far off though. According to The Atlantic, he had one Native American grandparent, in addition to two black grandparents — one on his mother’s side and one on his father’s. From first glance, he just looks like a brotha to me. But if you’ve seen W. Kamau Bell’s “United Shades of America” (Season 2, Episode 3), you know how problematic it is to expect natives to look like one particular thing. Fun fact: They don’t all look like the “Indian Chief” you see on television.
But a bigger question for me was with natives getting disrespected left and right and being killed in droves, why in the world did he think this disguise was a good one? Hell, the Trail of Tears alone was cruel and (un)usual punishment. This was a group that was far from unscathed. However, they did have one thing on their side that the early part of the 1900s wiped out for black folks (even before the bombing).
“There was a sharp decline in patenting right at 1900 around the time of Plessy vs. Ferguson and thereafter,” Cook explained. “[Black people had] been locked out of libraries where they used to go check the patent registries. They are locked out of the commercial districts where their patent attorneys are. They were cut off from talking to other inventors.”
But somehow natives managed to luck out and have more access to invention opportunities, including everything from baby bottles (made from a bird’s quill and bear-gut) to pain relievers and hammocks. So, as with Morgan, they tried as best they could to get around one of many other racist obstacles. In a world of two minority groups who were both always at risk of having their inventions stolen, land stolen, identity stolen and businesses stolen, it’s fascinating to learn how the two groups intertwined.
To learn more about Morgan’s story, click here and listen to June 28’s “Planet Money & How I Built This.” (Or, click here to read the transcript.) And if you’re really in a reading mood, check out who mechanical engineer Powtawche Valerino is, too.
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