One of America’s first auto companies was founded by a former slave
CR Patterson & Sons, the first African-American automaker, did not produce many of its hand-built cars – by some estimates only a few dozen between 1915 and 1918. The company’s iconic car, Patterson-Greenfield, is billed as a ” reasonably priced roadster with ‘all the amenities and luxury goods known to automakers’ had launched into serious headwinds.
Two years earlier, in 1913, auto titan Henry Ford had introduced the mobile assembly line to his Ford Motor Company. And by 1915, its mechanized plant was producing hundreds of thousands of Model T cars annually, at a much lower price than the Patterson-Greenfield custom roadster, which sold for between $ 685 and $ 850. While the small Ohio company created a beautiful, well-made vehicle, it couldn’t compete with Detroit’s burgeoning industry giants in terms of efficiency or price.
But cars were only part of the company’s ambitious entrepreneurial history. It all started with Charles Richard Patterson, a black man born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, who translated his blacksmith skills into a thriving car-building business in Ohio. And it ended two generations later, during the Great Depression, with her grandchildren filling regional and international contracts to manufacture bodies for buses and other larger utility vehicles.
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From slavery to business ownership
While it is not known how CR Patterson obtained his freedom, he traveled to Greenfield, Ohio before the Civil War, and found work in the city’s car-building business, where he got a job as a foreman. After the company he worked for was taken over by another local car maker, he became a partner in that company. He eventually became the sole owner, reorganizing as CR Patterson & Sons.
At the height of its transportation business in the 1890s, CR Patterson & Sons employed a racially integrated team of 10 to 15 workers, which produced 28 different styles of transportation vehicles, ranging from simple and open strollers to more closed styles. developed sold to physicians and other professionals in the South and Midwest. Along the way, Patterson obtained several patents for his innovations.
In a 1965 interview with the Pittsburgh Courier, Patterson’s daughter, Katie Buster, spoke about the business her father had started nearly a century earlier. âWe had built a nice business in the South for a buggy specially built for the doctors,â she said. âThe vast majority of our employees were white and we never had a problem with work.â
From cars to cars
After Patterson’s death in 1910, his son Frederick saw an opportunity in the growing popularity of automobiles. Frederick, who would become one of the first leaders of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, was in 1891 the first black football player at Ohio State University. âIn 1902 there was one car for 65,000 people, and in 1909 there was one vehicle for 800 people,â Frederick told his board of directors. âAnd with those kinds of numbers, I think it’s time for us to build a Patterson carriage without horses. . “
During this time, the car manufacturing industry had collapsed – from 13,800 manufacturers in the United States in 1890 to fewer than 100 by 1920. CR Patterson & Company attempted to make the transition to car manufacturing by proposing to repair machines at the cutting edge of technology, repaint and recondition fixing motors and other mechanical elements.
Frederick had come up with the idea of ââbuilding new cars on trips with his sales manager, CW Napper, where he noticed the proliferation of horseless cars that run on gasoline and are faster than horses. Frederick’s plan, he said in Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, was to build a car that could travel farther on a gallon of gasoline than any car made at the time.
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The brief life of the Patterson-Greenfield car
The first Patterson-Greenfield rolled off the line on September 23, 1915, with many of the features of a luxury vehicle. Manufactured in two models – Roadster and Touring Car, each with a 30-horsepower four-cylinder engine – the bespoke vehicle boasted special features such as a fully floating rear axle, removable rims, and a start-and-stop system. electric lighting. “The Patterson-Greenfield has all the features and amenities demanded by the modern automobile,” said an advertisement. “It’s a wonderful car, attractive for its good looks and long-lasting qualities.”
But Frederick was careful not to advertise the company as black-owned for fear of receiving patronage from white clients – a common challenge for black entrepreneurs in the days of Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. “[Frederick] is not in business as a black man, âa 1911 column wrote about him in Baltimore’s Afro-American. âHe never sold a black man’s stroller. It is unlikely that in his talks with professionals from the South he ever brought up the fact that he is a black man to make a sale. That said, the company has done much of its consumer advertising in black-owned publications, such as Crisis and Alexander Magazine.
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Business transition to buses
However, because the production of the Patterson-Greenfield car required a large capital investment that never materialized, the company never reached full production. Over a three-year period, it deployed approximately 30 vehicles. In Detroit, meanwhile, Henry Ford’s mobile assembly line had cut the time to build a car from over 12 hours to just 1 hour and 33 minutes, pumping out thousands of cars a day.
By 1919, the Patterson family, which held majority stakes in the company, had shut down the auto business and turned to producing bodies for buses, as well as hearses, vans, delivery trucks and more. again. Renamed in 1921 as the Greenfield Bus Body Company, the Patterson Company initially sold its buses to local school districts. During the 1920s the family maintained a thriving business, primarily bus bodies, built on Chevrolet, Ford and General Motors chassis.
In 1932, Frederick died at the age of 61, leaving a leadership vacuum in the company. The challenges of scale and the difficulty of raising funds to grow have made it difficult to stay afloat in the rapidly consolidating auto industry. âDetroit became too much for us and we just couldn’t compete,â said Postell Patterson, a grandson of Charles Patterson, in 1939, when the family business closed for good.
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The company’s heritage
One of Greenfield’s last major orders was for three GMCs
More than 150 years after its founding as a car maker, CR Patterson & Sons remains the only black-founded and black-owned automaker in American history.