Garrett Morgan returns to enrich learning at Boulevard Elementary School

Boulevard Elementary School students and their families gathered at Garrett Morgan's grave to witness the unveiling of a plague they purchased to honor the African-American inventor on July 17, 1994. Photo courtesy Susie Kaeser.

I’m a regular at Lake View Cemetery. It’s a grand place to walk, view nature and enjoy the seasons while experiencing Cleveland history. The headstones tell so much.

My route frequently passes by the grave of Garrett A. Morgan, the African-American inventor, philanthropist and publisher who is credited with more than 40 inventions, including the gas mask and traffic lights.  This spot is special. It’s a reminder of how empowering a great school project can be.

Let me explain. Planted on the road just a few feet from Morgan’s modest 1- by 2-foot ground-level polished marble headstone is one of 12 plaques installed as part of the 125th anniversary of the cemetery, to call attention to the graves of significant contributors to Cleveland’s history. This plaque is unique. It was funded by the children of Boulevard Elementary School. 

I was there on July 17, 1994, the day when two members of the Morgan family and the children in Sandy Axner and Sue Taylor’s third and fourth grade combined class stood together to witness the unveiling of the plaque. My son was among the 54 student philanthropists who put their minds, hearts, and actions to work to “set the record straight,” and, through this project, learned so much about activism and what a group of committed people--even children--can do to make change.

It all started in the fall of 1993 when the students started their research on Cleveland history. The two teachers valued real connections as part of every lesson, so a visit to Lake View Cemetery seemed like a logical way to bring some history to life. After touring Garfield’s monument and visiting John D. Rockefeller’s towering obelisk, they found Garrett Morgan’s modest grave tucked away at the far edges of the cemetery. It was a powerful contrast that upset the students, who thought it fell short in representing his significance to history. They felt there was an injustice and they wanted to do something about it. They wanted to set the record straight.

Axner, who still teaches at Boulevard, remembers that their history lesson ignited student passions and history suddenly connected to them. The best thing one can ever hope for in teaching followed: the students took the lead! Several months after their cemetery visit, they had named a campaign, developed posters and news stories, and plotted a strategy for giving greater recognition to Garrett Morgan. They raised more than $200 by selling their toys, popcorn and surprise bags, and gave it to Lake View. The plaque they purchased is still there reminding people about this important African American. The students were changed forever.

I have some good news for those 25- and 26-year-olds who honored Garrett Morgan 17 years ago: Garrett Morgan will once again be a source of project-based learning for Boulevard students.

Call it serendipity. Or what goes around comes around. This July, Boulevard received preliminary approval for a large grant from the Garrett Morgan Foundation to support project-based lessons as part of the school’s new emphasis on science and technology. If they are as empowering as the 1993 history lesson, the grant will surely change another generation of students.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and current board member of the Home Repair Resource Center.

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Volume 4, Issue 8, Posted 12:03 PM, 08.02.2011