1914 — Garrett Morgan patents a gas mask

Although understandably primitive by modern standards, Morgan’s gas mask – or safety hood as he called it – was a considerable improvement in the state of its particular art.

Morgan, a black man in a racist age, had been inspired by reports of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to create gear that protected the wearer from smoke and other noxious gasses. Although he got his patent, his invention was slow to catch on, and Morgan’s race was probably the major reason why.

His fortunes improved after the safety hood achieved national prominence in 1916, when he and three others used it to save the lives of two men trapped in a tunnel. For this Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, and additional gold medals for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Lack of recognition never held Morgan back – he also patented an early traffic light design, among other creations – but it was not until 1963, shortly before his death, that white America gave him the recognition he deserved.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1980 — Archbishop Oscar Romero is assassinated

Oscar Romero was a passionate advocate of social justice and human rights. As the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador), this made him one of the repressive government’s most highly placed and widely respected opponents. He repeatedly called for the soldiers who served on the Salvadorian “Death Squads” to lay down their arms and end their brutal repression of their fellow Christians.

In order to send a message in no uncertain terms, he was shot and killed while celebrating mass on Sunday, March 24, 1980. His funeral on the following Saturday was disrupted by further assaults. Although in the short term Romero’s opponents succeeded in silencing him, they made of him a martyr to the cause of all who would oppose them. Today, thirty years later, Oscar Romero is a candidate for sainthood in the faith he gave his life for.

Referenced in:
Harrisburg — Josh Ritter
Oscar Romero — Richard Gilpin
Marching Song of the Covert Battalions — Billy Bragg

1989 — The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska

One of the worst oil spills in history, especially in terms of the difficulty of cleaning it up, the collision of the Exxon Valdez with the Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound is the second worst oil spill in US waters (exceeded only by the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010). It took place, as most oil spills do, because an oil company decided that saving a few dollars by cutting safety margins was more important than the health of their employees or the environment.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was incredibly remote, in a bay with virtually no land access, meaning that everyone had to come in by sea (through the oil slick that grew to cover 28,000 square kilometres) or by air. Taking place in the Alaskan spring, the clean up was further complicated by the melting of the ice floes and the occasional calving of icebergs. More than 25 years later, much of the oil still remains on the coasts and in the waters of the area – and Exxon is still to pay $92 million in compensation.

Referenced in:
Black Sea — John McCutcheon
Raven’s Child — John Denver
Dirty Pool — Spirit of the West
Barren Ground — Bruce Hornsby and the Range
The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez — Geoff Bartley