The intersection of Black history and car history

Taking a closer look at key figures in automotive history, in celebration of Black History Month

The intersection of Black history and car history

Taking a closer look at key figures in automotive history, in celebration of Black History Month

Did you know that one of the first concepts for the traffic light came from a Black inventor? Or that one of the United States’ first car companies was founded by a formerly enslaved man?

As we celebrate and recognize Black History Month, we’re examining some of the pioneering efforts made by Black inventors, business leaders, drivers and designers in the American transportation industry — all of whom have had a major impact on our guests, hosts and carsharing community.

C. R. Patterson and Sons

Frederick Douglas Patterson with the first Patterson-Greenfield car
Frederick Douglas Patterson with the first Patterson-Greenfield car in 1915. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Greenfield/Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Richard (C.R.) Patterson was born in 1833. He came into the world as an enslaved person on a Virginia plantation. As a young man, and shortly before the beginning of the Civil War, he made his way to the underground railroad stop in the northern town of Greenfield, Ohio. There, he used his blacksmithing skills to build horse-drawn carriages — a burgeoning business at the time. He rose through the ranks at a local carriage company, eventually buying out his business partner to become the sole owner (and founder) of what would be known from 1893 onward as C.R. Patterson, Son & Company, which he ran with the help of his eldest son, Frederick Douglas Patterson.

After C.R. Patterson died in 1910, Frederick took over the company and quickly decided that it would be wise to get out of the dying carriage business and into increasingly-popular “horseless carriages.” By 1915 the company, which Frederick renamed C.R. Patterson and Sons after his deceased father, created and sold the first Patterson-Greenfield Automobile. With both a roadster and a touring model available, the Patterson-Greenfield car competed admirably against the stiffest of competition: the Ford Motor Company’s Model T, which hit the market just two years earlier.

Over a three-year period, the company turned out a small number of vehicles, selling them for between $685 and $850. However, the assembly-line efficiency of Ford proved too much for the bespoke C.R. Patterson and Sons company: Ford’s cars were cheaper and could be made much more quickly. So in 1919, the company pivoted from building and selling cars to producing the bodies for larger vehicles, such as delivery vans and buses, until the company closed its doors for good in 1939, shortly after Frederick’s death in 1932.

But the legacy of C.R. Patterson and Sons lives on as the first Black-owned founded and operated auto manufacturer in U.S. history.

Garrett Morgan

Patent drawing for Garrett A. Morgan's traffic signal
Patent drawing for Garrett A. Morgan's traffic signal, US patent 1,475,024, Nov. 20 1923. Copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 105) states that all materials created by the United States government are in the public domain.

Morgan was born in the small southern town of Claysville, Kentucky in 1877, but he didn’t stay there for long. Upon receiving his sixth-grade education he struck out at the age of 14 to find work and make a name for himself in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio … and he did just that. The soon-to-be inventor, entrepreneur, community leader and businessman would be responsible for, among many things, an early version of the traffic light.

Dubbed by some as the “Father of Transportation Technology,” Morgan’s humble beginnings included sewing machine repair and tailoring work, which would eventually lead him to one of his first inventions: an early version of the gas mask which would be used during World War I.

But his contribution to the world of transportation came in his early 40s when he witnessed the death of a young girl on the streets of Cleveland — the result of an accident between a car and a horse-drawn carriage. Morgan went straight to work, developing and patenting a three-pronged light post with the words “stop” and “go” emblazoned upon each side. It was his hope and intention that his invention would help moderate the flow of vehicular traffic, allowing pedestrians to move about safely and unharmed, and to avoid the fate of the young girl he has witnessed.

The U.S. Government recognized Morgan for his work shortly before he died in 1963, awarding him a special commendation for his work in creating the traffic light.

Wendell Scott

Black drivers Malcolm Durham, Leonard W. Miller, Wendell Scott, and Ronald Hines
Black drivers Malcolm Durham, Leonard W. Miller, Wendell Scott, and Ronald Hines (left-right) circa 1970. Photo courtesy of Ethan Casey/Wikimedia Commons.

Wendell Scott was born in Danville, Virginia in 1921. He wore many hats throughout his 69-year life, including working as a mechanic, driving taxicabs, and serving in the military during World War II. But the hat he wore most famously and proudly was that of the first Black stock car driver for NASCAR.

On May 23rd, 1952 — a little more than five years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Scott was a pioneer in his sport for Black athletes, competing in a stock car race on a dirt track in his hometown of Danville. The impact he made on the world of car racing would dwarf the $50, third-place finish he entered into the official record books that day.

But, as with Jackie Robinson, simply breaking the sport’s color barrier was only the beginning of his legacy. Scott would compete in more than 500 NASCAR events before he retired in 1973, finishing 6th overall in points in 1966, and winning the Jacksonville 200 in 1964.

His accomplishments on the track are made more impressive when considering that, for most of his career, he competed in events throughout the Jim Crow South during the 1960s, and he and his family were prohibited from using many hotels, restaurants and other establishments by discriminatory and racist local laws. He also found himself at a major financial disadvantage when compared to many of his NASCAR peers, needing to do more with less money, and using his industriousness to repurpose and repair older cars from other drivers in order to be able to compete with them.

But Scott kept fighting and eventually found the winner’s circle in many ways, blazing the trail for Black drivers from Malcolm Durham and Robert Hines in the 1970s to modern-day NASCAR drivers like Bubba Wallace. Today, his #34 baby blue Chevrolet holds a place of honor in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which posthumously inducted Scott in 2015.

McKinley Thompson, Jr.

Thompson sketching a design for Ford.
Thompson sketching a design for Ford. Photo courtesy of The Ford Archives, fair use image.

Born in 1922 in Queens, New York, McKinley Thompson Jr., always loved cars. He was 12 when he first remembered seeing a silver DeSoto Airflow zoom through his neighborhood, sparking what would become a lifelong passion for the young man. He knew from the moment he saw that car drive past him that he wanted to design them for a living.

His dreams were put on pause, like the dreams of so many others, as he served in the Army during World War II. He returned home and used the skills he had developed before and during the war —  drafting and engineering coordination — to work to provide for his family … but he still had to scratch the car design itch, and a 1950 contest for Motor Trend Magazine allowed him to do just that.

Thompson won the contest, and was accepted into the ArtCenter College of Design, where he studied transportation design. Upon graduation in 1956, he accepted a position to become the first Black car designer for the Ford Motor Company.

Among Thompson’s many accomplishments at Ford were early concept sketches for pickups, an early iteration of the famous Mustang, and futuristic concept cars such as the two-wheeled 1961 Ford Gyron. But his most celebrated achievement was, without a doubt, a concept for a two-door sport utility vehicle that would eventually become the iconic 1966 Ford Bronco.

Thompson, according to his colleague on the Ford Bronco project, Christopher Young, “helped pave the way for others like him who might not have had an opportunity to express their creative talents and live their dreams to be a part of one of America’s greatest companies.”

These are just a few of the many Black Americans who have helped make history in the car industry. As you get on the road this February, take a moment to recognize their accomplishments and celebrate this rich history along with us.