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.