The automotive industry has an intriguing history and wide impact around the globe. From its beginnings in France and Germany with the first gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, to Detroit's unique and storied history and the innovative auto mobile production and design capabilities of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Yet there are few industries that blacks have not contributed to in a positive and significant way, and the design and production of the automobile is no exception.
On the eve of the Civil War, an enslaved blacksmith named Charles (Rich) Patterson, escaped from a West Virginia plantation, traversed the Ohio River and settled in the city of Greenfield, Ohio. He was hired as a skilled tradesman at Dines and Simpson Carriage and Coach Factory where he was known for his integrity and fine work and he soon rose to foreman.
In 1873, Patterson went into business with J.P. Lowe. After ten years, Lowe died and Patterson became the sole proprietor and changed the name to The C.R. Patterson Co. He specialized in horse drawn wagons and carriages and produced over 28 designs and varieties. Among them were buggies, phaetons, backboards, rockaways, and the surey, which was the most popular of them all.
Patterson married and he and his wife, Josephine, were the parents of four children, Katherine, Dollie, Frederick, and Samuel.
Frederick showed a strong interest in his father's business and would be pivotal in the company's production of automobiles.
By 1883, with Patterson's sons Frederick and Samuel joining him in the business, the name was changed to C.R. Patterson and Son Carriage Company.
After Frederick graduated from O.S.U. (he was the first black to do so) he taught school for several years in Kentucky before returning home to work again in his family's carriage business.
In the early 1900's while riding through the streets of Ohio, he noticed the strange looking horseless carriages that were becoming more popular as the years passed.
"In 1902 there was only one car to every 65,000 people," he observed. "And by 1909 there was one for every 850. I believe it is time to build a Patterson horseless carriage."
Thus began the idea that would culminate with the Patterson Automobile Company, the only known African American car manufacturing company in America.
The first, a two door coupe, was introduced in 1915; and soon after the company produced a large four door touring model. They would also manufacture buses, (Patterson buses were the first to used by the city of Cincinnati) trucks, hearses, moving vans and the company was among the first to produce two-wheel trailers.
Reportedly, Patterson automobiles were superior in quality and comfort to the vehicles of many competitors, including the Ford Model T, and were equipped with special features such as full floating rear axle, demountable rims, left handed drive, center control, electric starting and lighting systems, one man top, and ventilating windshield. They were also equipped with powerful continental engines and could top speeds of 50 miles per hour.
In the end, the Patterson Automobile could not compete with the mega-financed and mass produced cars of Detroit and the rest of the world, and the economic crisis of the 1930's era depression caused the company to fold and the Patterson, one of the finest automobiles of its time, to fade from the landscape.
Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Daniel Z. Bakker, "Black Genocide," K.B. Publishing. Detroit (2005) p. p. 195-198
2. "C.R. Patterson & Son: America's Only African American Automobile Manufacturers," by Monette Bailey, African Americans On Wheels Magazine, (Jan.. 2005 Issue)
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