When a natural gas explosion ripped through a tunnel 200 feet below Lake Eerie in the early summer of 1916, killing 10 workers and 11 more emergency rescuers who were fatally overcome by the gas, three men ran into the nightmarish scene and managed to save two who would not have otherwise survived.
The reason the trio was able to do what the first-responders could not? They were wearing breathing devices invented by one of them, a contraption that ended up being the precursor to today’s gas masks.
In the aftermath of the Waterworks Tunnel Disaster, orders started pouring in from chemists, firefighters and others for Garrett Augustus Morgan’s life-saving invention as word spread of its almost miraculous qualities. But those orders abruptly stopped when the world learned something about Morgan that dried up the flow of business: He was a black man, the son of former slaves.
Morgan wound up hiring a white actor to take credit for the “inhalator” breathing device and market the “safety hood and smoke protector,” as it was known then.
That remarkable story is but one of the poignant and powerful accounts given by Esther Roman of El Dorado County when she presents her collection of African-American memorabilia and tells stories behind the pieces. Roman’s “Lookin’ Back at Black” traveling history museum will be featured during Black History Month at the El Dorado Hills Senior Center, with Roman speaking about her collection at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 21.
Roman’s amazing collection includes hundreds of “Daddy Long Legs” cast-resin dolls by artist Karen Germany, dolls that populate the shelves of a closet in Roman’s beautiful home. The lifelike faces and period costumes must be studied to fully appreciate their intricate details and Roman generously welcomes the public to do so during her upcoming presentation.
Roman, retired, has collected African-American memorabilia for more than 20 years and some of the items presented must be explained in order to understand her reasons for placing them on display, she said.
“I’m just concerned that in a newspaper article, it won’t come across that some of these items are not intended to make people angry,” said Roman, 69, as she showed a poster for Bull Durham tobacco that depicts two black men sitting on a dock with a hole-filled raggedy umbrella over them. Their lips are exaggeratedly large and a quote on the poster proclaims, “It shure am sweet.”
“The broken English, their clothing … a lot of it appears derogatory when it’s in a presentation without explanation,” said Morgan. “People do get angry and I don’t want to make them mad. I am simply trying to show how black people were depicted in advertising not so long ago, as a way to educate the public.”
The ubiquitous “N” word also appears in some of Roman’s collection, including in the title of a booklet called “10 Little (‘N’) Boys,” a teaching tool in the 1920s and ’30s intended to help mostly white kids learn arithmetic. Each example in the booklet eliminates a black child in some fashion, until at the end the children have counted back from 10 to 1.
“I need to explain some of the pieces,” said Morgan, her expression wistful at how times were so overtly racist not so very long ago.
Her intent with some of the more controversial pieces in the collection is not to show that “it is what it is,” but rather to show that “it is what it was.”
Most of the emphasis in “Lookin’ Back at Black” is on the positive, said Morgan as she spoke of the venerable “Aunt Jemima,” who was based on an actual person.
“Nancy Green was the first Aunt Jemima and during her career she made over a million pancakes,” said Roman. Green was a spokeswoman for Quaker Oats Co. and the Aunt Jemima brand starting in 1890.
The collector added that the black man gracing boxes of Cream of Wheat, “Rastus,” also was based on a real person, Frank L. White, also circa 1890.
Roman’s collection includes a “little wooden 6-inch ruler” signed by G.A. Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, who also is credited with two other memorable innovations: hair straightener and the great-granddaddy to the modern-day traffic signal lights.
It is clear, though, that her collection of Karen Germany’s “Daddy Long Legs” dolls are near and dear to her heart, and in addition to those that decorate her home and those she will display during her show, she said she has hundreds more in storage.
“Most of them were made in the 1990s and Karen Germany would break the mold, making them collector’s items,” said Roman, propping a Daddy Long Legs soldier playing a snare drum against a backdrop of the American flag.
Roman said she loves sharing her collection with the public, as she did recently at the Folsom Museum, but she said the task of packing the items for transportation and display, then reversing the chore with repacking and transporting back home or to storage, has become rather off-putting.
She said she would welcome the help of a club or individuals who would be interested in helping her make the historical treat available to all. Call Roman at (916) 939-4291 if you are able to offer help.
“What I would really like someday is to open a museum in the Sacramento area,” she reflected, noting that she is not far from her 70th birthday. “When I took the collection to the Folsom Museum in 2009 in honor of Barack Obama’s inauguration, there were actually too many pieces for the museum. I’d like to find the right location to display them.”
Roman moved to El Dorado County from San Jose about 13 years ago, in order to be closer to family.
Take advantage of 20-plus years of collecting pieces that prompt a pondering of the past and catch Esther Roman’s “Lookin’ Back at Black,” beginning at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Senior Center, 990 Lassen Lane in El Dorado Hills. Call (916) 358-3575 to reserve a spot or for more information.