One of America’s greatest strengths is the diversity of our population. With talents and experiences from all over the world to draw from, there’s nothing we can’t do. Black history Month is all about recognizing and celebrating the contributions of one such group, and as they have done with every aspect of American life, the Black community has contributed enormously to the automotive industry. Here are seven pioneers that helped shape the industry that we all know and love.
Frederick Douglas Patterson (1871-1932) was one of five children born to entrepreneur C.R. Patterson. The elder Patterson was enslaved since birth in Virginia, at some point leaving for Ohio (the precise nature of his migration is disputed). Considering the circumstances of his birth, it’s not surprising that he named his son for noted intellectual and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
C.R. Patterson founded C.R. Patterson and Sons, a business that sold various horse-powered vehicles. Literal horses. They sold carriages. When C.R. died in 1910, Frederick took over and by 1915 pivoted to automobiles, producing their first car on September 23. This made C.R. Patterson and Sons the first Black-owned car company in the world. Sadly, no surviving examples of their automobiles are known to exist, but a few of their carriages still do.
Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) was a prolific inventor, but what lands him on this list is the three-position traffic signal. If you are unclear on what that means, it’s because Morgan’s invention is so important that we literally can’t conceive of a time without it. The short version is that traffic lights used to only have two signals: STOP and GO. Drivers had no idea when one would become another, and you can imagine the carnage.
The story goes that Morgan witnessed one such accident and made up his mind to stop it. He invented a signal that would now warn a driver when GO was moving over to STOP. While his original design was T-shaped with actual words, we still use the basic concept today with our red/yellow/green traffic lights. You can see the original in the Smithsonian.
Homer Roberts (1885-1952) holds a special place in the hearts of those who read this, as he was the first Black man to own his own dealership. Roberts was a savvy businessman, growing his business with smart advertising, at a time when he was forced to sell his Fords, Hupmobiles, and Rickenbackers to an exclusively Black clientele.
Roberts served in the Army Signal Corps in WWI, becoming the first Black man to make Lieutenant. When the Great Depression wiped out his business, Roberts returned to the Army and served again in WWII.
Charlie Wiggins (1897-1979) was a race car driver who dreamed of competing in the Indianapolis 500, but was barred by due to race. The desire to compete didn’t go away, and so Wiggins and other Black drivers got together to create the “Colored Speedway Association,” an all-Black racing league. The crown jewel was their 100-mile race, the awesomely-named Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. Wiggins won three of them.
In 1934, driver Bill Cummings hired Wiggins on as part of his crew for the Indy 500. Thanks to the same racially-charged decision that barred him from competing, the team had to resort to subterfuge to get Wiggins on the track. It was worth it: Cummings not only won but set a track record.
Wendell Scott (1921-1990) is another great driver of yesteryear. Scott’s personal journey somewhat mirrors the history of stock car racing, as he too got his start outrunning the police with a car full of illegal moonshine. The best part of the story happened in 1952. Racing officials in Danville, Virginia, Scott’s hometown, wanted a Black driver as a promotional stunt. The police suggested Scott, who proceeded to place while driving one of the very cars he had been running whiskey in.
If this hasn’t cemented Scott’s legacy, there’s more. While initially barred him from NASCAR due to race, Scott built a reputation so good that eventually they couldn’t stop him from being let in. He made history as the first Black NASCAR driver and the first Black man to own his own team. With over 500 races in his NASCAR career, he placed in the top ten 147 times and in the top five 20 times. And in perhaps the greatest honor of all, was played by the great Richard Pryor in 1977’s Greased Lightning.
McKinley Thompson Jr. (1922-2006) won first place in a scholarship competition hosted by Motor Trend that enabled him to become the first Black person to attend the Art Center College of Design. Upon his graduation in 1956, he started working for Ford as an automotive designer, once again becoming the first Black person to do that.
Thompson was instrumental in designing the iconic Bronco, which makes him pretty influential in a market later dominated by SUVs. Thompson also did a lot of work on some of Ford’s other signature lines, such as the Mustang and the Thunderbird.
Leonard W. Miller (1934-) loved cars from the age of five, when he started tinkering with his family’s Ford. He must have had understanding folks to let a five year old poke around under the hood. As a young man, he built custom cars, a skill that translated to a stint in the Army’s 45th Ordnance Battalion, Direct Automotive Support Company. His job there was repairing vehicles while under enemy fire.
He formed Miller Brothers Racing in 1969, winning dozens of races, and in 1972, he became the first Black man to enter the Indy 500. Along with several others, including previous entrant Wendell Scott, he created the Black American Racers Association, a group that would promote and honor Black people in auto racing. Miller also founded NASCAR’s Miller Racing Group, which in 2005 was the first Black-owned team to win a track championship.
These are just snapshots into the lives of these seven remarkable men, and I would encourage anyone who found something of interest to take a deeper look. It doesn’t have to be February to learn and celebrate Black History.