Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Garret Morgan lights our way

Creation: Spring & Easter
Doing one's best drives away regret. (Malagasy)

When I was growing up, policemen controlled traffic at intersections. Some directed traffic with such style – on horseback and with white gloves – that the operation felt like theater. Today’s traffic lights may be more efficient, but they lack the drama of those Jamaican policemen with flashing fingers, emperors decreeing when we could go and when we must stop. Police appear at junctions now when the power goes and traffic lights are blank, but they seem more like interludes than the main act.

Garrett Augustus Morgan (March 4, 1877 - August 27, 1963) invented the traffic lights that impact so much on the lives of road users today. Morgan was the first Black man to own a motor car in Cleveland, Ohio, and he saw at first hand the many crashes between the early motor vehicles and pedestrians, cyclists, animal-drawn wagons, and other gasoline-powered motor vehicles.

Morgan invented his version of traffic signals after he witnessed a collision between a car and a horse-drawn carriage. He created a mechanical traffic light that could be operated form a distance, an improvement on over the manually-operated versions then in existence. The patent was granted in 1923, and Morgan’s traffic signals were used around the world till the red, amber, and green lights were introduced.

Another of his inventions also contributed greatly to public safety. In 1912, Morgan received a patent for a a gas mask that he used to rescue men trapped in an underground tunnel. Soldiers in World War I used a refined version of his gas mask.

He was born in Kentucky to parents who were former slaves. He attended school while working on the family farm, and had no formal education beyond elementary school. When he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, he worked as a sewing machine repairman and began to experiment with ways of improving his trade. He opened his own sewing machine repair shop in 1907. His success in business enabled him to buy a home and a car.

His wealth did not protect him from the race prejudice of the times. Active in Black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he worked for change in race relations from about 1914 until his death in 1963.

Before his death, the United States Government awarded him a citation for his traffic signal

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at