They were racers, car dealers and turn-of-century car makers — check out this shortlist of groundbreaking African Americans who left an enduring mark on the automotive world.
Born into slavery on a West Virginia plantation in April 1833, C.R. Patterson escaped to Ohio in 1862 and found work as a blacksmith for the Greenfield carriage-building business Dines and Simpson. Patterson eventually partnered with J.P. Lowe, a local carriage manufacturer who happened to be white.
When Lowe died, Patterson took over the business and renamed his new venture “C.R. Patterson & Sons Company.” Patterson eventually offered 28 types of horse-drawn vehicles and employed over a dozen workers. He died in 1910, but not before experimenting with the manufacture of gas-powered “horseless carriages.” Patterson’s company is considered the world’s first and only African-American owned and founded automobile company.
It was actually Patterson’s son, Frederick, who converted the company entirely over to automobile manufacturing with the debut of the Patterson-Greenfield car. It sold for $850, featured a four-cylinder Continental engine and was comparable to the contemporary Ford Model T.
Unable to compete with Ford’s manufacturing capability, C.R. Patterson & Sons switched to production of truck, bus and other utility vehicle bodies installed on chassis from major auto manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors. The company’s school bus bodies became popular as Midwestern school districts began to convert from horse-drawn to internal-combustion-fired transportation by 1920.
While no Patterson-Greenfield automobiles are known to have survived, rare examples of C.R. Patterson & Sons carriages and buggies can still be found in museums across the Midwest.
A graduate of Kansas State Agricultural College and a veteran of World War I who achieved the rank of lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, Homer Roberts moved to Kansas City in 1919 and took out an ad in the local paper advertising seven used cars.
Brokering deals exclusively for African-American buyers, Roberts sold over 60 cars before the end of the year. According to the historic records of the Homer Roberts Foundation, Roberts hired two salesmen, offered insurance to buyers, and eventually founded Roberts Motors, the first African-American-owned car dealership in the United States.
Roberts’ success helped him land a Ford franchise that grew to include a 60-car showroom, an auto repair and body shop, a parts store and a filling station. He eventually added Hupmobile and Rickenbacker to the lineup. In 1925, Roberts’ dealership ranked third in the U.S. for sales of Rickenbacker. He eventually opened another dealership in Chicago that claimed the largest number of Hupmobile sales in the nation in 1929.
The Great Depression, however, marked the end of Roberts’ business success. In 1941, at the age of 56, he rejoined the military and spent four years in the Army during World War II. After his discharge, he returned to Chicago where he worked in media/public relations until his death in 1952.
Born in 1897 in Evansville, Indiana, Charlie Wiggins spent his boyhood shining shoes on the street in front of a local auto repair shop until he was invited into the garage to help work on cars. He worked his way up to apprentice and then, in 1917, became chief mechanic after American soldiers began shipping out to fight in the trenches of World War I.
The Roaring Twenties are best remembered for prohibition, gangsters and high-flying jazz clubs. But it was also a time of violent racism. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan was at a peak. Anti-lynching laws repeatedly failed to pass Congress. After moving to Indianapolis in 1922, Wiggins opened his own garage and began building his own racecar with salvaged junkyard parts. He wanted to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in the car he dubbed “the Wiggins Special,” but the color of his skin made him ineligible to compete.
Wiggins and other African-American drivers responded by boldly forming their own racing league. He helped establish the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, an annual 100-mile race for black drivers on a one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The first race, in 1924, drew a crowd of 12,000 and was the largest sporting event held for African Americans up to that point. Over the next decade, Wiggins would win three Gold and Glory Sweepstake championships. His notoriety as a mechanic and racer and his outspoken actions against segregation in auto racing made him a frequent target of the KKK, who attacked Wiggins and vandalized his home on more than one occasion.
During the 1936 running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, Wiggins lost a leg in a 13-car crash. He made himself a wooden prosthetic and for the next 40 years built and repaired cars while training and advising other drivers and mechanics. He also continued to fight for African-American participation in motor racing until his death in Indianapolis in 1979 at the age of 82.
A high school dropout from Danville, Virginia, Wendell Scott served in the segregated Army in Europe during World War II. After the war, he returned to Danville where he ran an auto-repair shop. Scott learned auto mechanics from his father, who worked as a driver for two wealthy white families. But he honed his skills as a driver on the back roads of Virginia, where he got involved in the running of illegal moonshine until he was caught by police in 1949.
Thirty years old and sentenced to three years of probation, Scott continued running whiskey at night and his auto shop by day. On weekends, he regularly attended local stockcar races where he was forced to sit in the blacks-only section of the bleachers. Then, in 1952, Danville race officials decided to recruit a black driver to compete in a one-time promotional gimmick. When asked to name the best African-American driver in town, the police recommended Scott, who ended up placing in one of his whiskey-running cars.
Initially banned from competing in the NASCAR circuit because of the color of his skin, Scott built a reputation for himself winning race after race in smaller stockcar venues. Scott eventually became the first licensed African-American NASCAR driver. He was also the first to own his own team. Competing in nearly 500 races in NASCAR’s top division — from 1961 through the early 1970s — he finished in the top ten 147 times. In 1977, Scott’s compelling story of overcoming racism to excel in his sport was made into a movie, Greased Lightening, starring Richard Pryor.
African-American auto-racing pioneer Leonard Miller was born in Philadelphia in 1934 and began tinkering with the engine of his family’s 1937 Ford at age five. Drawn to hotrods and racing, Miller developed his skills as a mechanic throughout the 1950s as an enlisted member of the United States Third Army’s 45th Ordnance Battalion, a group trained to repair jeeps and trucks under battlefield conditions.
In 1972, Miller founded the Black American Racers Association. That same year, he helped form Vanguard Racing (along with friend Wendell Scott), the first African American-owned team to enter a car in the Indianapolis 500. Miller was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976. During the mid-‘90s he and his son Leonard formed the Miller Racing Group, which led the father and son to the record books when, in 2005, their team won a NASCAR track championship — a first for African-American owners.