African Americans Who Shaped the Automotive Industry

 

Every February, Americans celebrate the extraordinary contributions that African Americans have made in U.S. history. At Steve Landers Toyota, we decided to observe Black History Month in the best way we know how by honoring the African Americans who paved the way for black participation in the automotive and racing industries. These trailblazers not only fought for civil rights, but they also made incredible strides in automotive technology and safety, and spurred on others to make the industry what it is today. 

 

C.R. Patterson 

 

 

Charles Richard Patterson, or C.R. Patterson, was born into slavery in 1833 on a plantation in Virginia. Records show that Patterson escaped in the early 1860s and fled to Greenfield, Ohio where he established himself as a blacksmith. He eventually started working for a carriage-building business, and in 1873, Patterson partnered with a white carriage manufacturer, J.P. Lowe. In 1893 Patterson bought out Lowe and became the sole proprietor, renaming the company C.R. Patterson and Sons. When he died in 1910, he passed the company down to his son Frederick. Frederick noticed the new “horseless carriages” on the road, and produced the company’s first car. In 1915 he produced the Patterson-Greenfield Automobile and became the first black owner and operator of an automobile manufacturer. The company was reputable, but they couldn’t keep up with Ford’s manufacturing capacity. In 1932, Frederick died, and the company was hit by the effects of the Great Depression. In 1939 they closed production. 

 

Homer Roberts 

 

A 1923 Marmon Automobile as sold in the Roberts Co. Motor Mart

 

Born in 1885, Homer B. Roberts was a graduate of the Kansas State Agricultural College, a World War I Veteran, and the first black man to attain the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps. Roberts began his career in the automotive industry by selling used cars. He understood the power of advertising and placed ads in The Kansas City Sun, a local African-American newspaper. By 1919, he had negotiated over 60 car sales exclusively to African-American customers. In 1921, he gained offices, showrooms, and hired two salesmen to accommodate his increased demand. From there, he gained the attention of several niche auto manufacturers including Hupmobile, Rickenbacker, and Whippet, and by 1925 his dealership Roberts Co. Motor Mart was ranked third in the United States for its sales of the Rickenbacker automobile. Unfortunately the business was greatly affected by the Great Depression and many of the stores closed. However, the Roberts Motor Mart still has a dealership operating in Kansas City today. 

 

Garrett Morgan 

 

 

Born in 1877 in Kentucky, Garret Morgan began his career as a sewing machine mechanic with only an elementary school education. Morgan was a talented inventor with a keen eye for detail. He obtained several patents for inventions including an improved sewing machine, a new traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a breathing device that later provided a blueprint for World War I gas masks. Morgan made a great contribution to the automotive industry with his invention of a new traffic signal. After witnessing a carriage accident, Morgan acquired a patent for a new type of traffic signal with a warning light to alert drivers to stop. This light was a rudimentary version of the three-light traffic signals seen today. Garrett eventually sold his patent to General Electric for $40,000. 

 

Leonard Miller 

 

 

Born in 1934, Leonard Miller's love for cars began his childhood in suburban Philadelphia.  In 1972, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association with Wendell Scott, Ron Hines, and Malcolm Durham. Scott, as honorary chairman, went on to become the first black man to compete in NASCAR. The association was formed to honor black drivers and mechanics in the racing industry, and it grew to over 5,000 members. In 1972, he became the first black owner to enter a car in the Indianapolis 500. Miller later founded Miller Racing Group with his son, and they became the first African American team to win a track championship in NASCAR history, winning the stock car title at the Old Dominion Speedway in Virginia in 2005. 

 

At Steve Landers Kia, we’re proud to be part of an industry shaped by many influential African-American inventors, racers, and mechanics. Without their contributions, the automotive and racing industry wouldn’t be where it is today. These pioneers paved the way for bigger and better automotive achievements, and we’re grateful for their contributions.

 
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