C.R. Patterson & Sons, the primary African American owned auto producer, didn’t produce a lot of its hand-built vehicles—by some estimates, just a few dozen between 1915 and 1918. The corporate’s signature Patterson-Greenfield automobile, marketed as a “sensibly priced” roadster with “each comfort and each luxurious identified to automobile manufacture,” had launched into some severe aggressive headwinds.
Two years earlier, in 1913, automotive titan Henry Ford had launched the shifting meeting line at his Ford Motor Firm. And by 1915, his mechanized manufacturing facility was pumping out lots of of hundreds of Model T vehicles yearly, priced far lower than Patterson-Greenfield’s bespoke roadster, which offered for between $685 and $850. Whereas the tiny Ohio agency created a lovely, well-made automobile, it couldn’t compete in opposition to Detroit’s burgeoning trade giants on effectivity, or on worth.
However vehicles had been only one a part of the corporate’s formidable entrepreneurial historical past. It began with Charles Richard Patterson, a Black man born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, who translated his blacksmithing expertise right into a thriving carriage-building enterprise in Ohio. And it ended two generations later, throughout the Great Depression, together with his grandchildren fulfilling regional and worldwide contracts to manufacture our bodies for buses and different bigger utility autos.
READ MORE: 8 Black Inventors Who Made Daily Life Easier
From Enslavement to Enterprise Possession
Whereas it’s unclear how C.R. Patterson obtained his freedom, he made his technique to Greenfield, Ohio earlier than the Civil War, and bought work within the metropolis’s carriage-building commerce, the place he earned a place as foreman. After the corporate he labored for was purchased by one other native carriage maker, he grew to become a accomplice in that enterprise. He ultimately grew to become the only real proprietor, reorganizing as C.R. Patterson & Sons.
On the top of its carriage enterprise within the Eighteen Nineties, C.R. Patterson & Sons employed a racially built-in group of 10 to fifteen employees, who turned out 28 totally different types of carriage autos, from easy, open buggies to extra elaborate closed types offered to docs and different professionals all through the South and the Midwest. Alongside the way in which, Patterson earned a number of patents for his improvements.
In a 1965 interview with the Pittsburgh Courier, Patterson’s daughter Katie Buster talked in regards to the firm her father had began almost a century earlier. “We had constructed up a pleasant commerce within the South for an particularly constructed buggy for docs,” she mentioned. “The good majority of our workers had been white, and we by no means skilled any labor bother.”
From Carriages to Automobiles
After Patterson’s demise in 1910, his son Frederick noticed alternative within the rising recognition of cars. Frederick, who would grow to be an early chief in Booker T. Washington’s Nationwide Negro Enterprise League, had in 1891 been the primary Black soccer participant at Ohio State College. “In 1902, there was one automobile to 65,000 individuals, and by 1909 there was one automobile for each 800 individuals,” Frederick instructed his board. “And with these sorts of figures, I imagine it is time for us to construct a Patterson horseless carriage.”
In the meantime, the carriage-building trade had collapsed—from 13,800 producers within the U.S. in 1890 to fewer than 100 in 1920. A technique C.R. Patterson & Firm tried to make the transition to auto manufacturing was by providing to restore the newfangled machines, from repainting and reupholstering to fixing engines and different mechanicals.
Frederick had give you the thought for constructing new vehicles throughout journeys together with his gross sales supervisor, C.W. Napper, the place he observed the proliferation of horseless carriages that had been fueled by gasoline and sooner than horses. Frederick’s plan, he instructed Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper, was to construct a automobile that would journey farther on a gallon of gasoline than any automobile being manufactured on the time.
The Transient Lifetime of the Patterson-Greenfield Automobile
The primary Patterson-Greenfield rolled off the road on September 23, 1915, with many hallmarks of a luxurious automobile. Made in two fashions—Roadster and Touring Automobile, every with a 30-horsepower, four-cylinder engine—the custom-made automobile boasted particular options similar to a full floating rear axle, demountable rims and an electrical beginning and lighting system. “The Patterson-Greenfield possesses each characteristic and comfort demanded by trendy motoring,” mentioned an commercial. “It’s a fantastic automobile, interesting for good-looking look and enduring qualities.”
However Frederick was cautious to not promote the corporate as Black-owned out of worry that it might not obtain the patronage of white clients—a typical problem for Black entrepreneurs throughout the period of Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. “[Frederick] will not be in enterprise as a Black man,” declared a 1911 column about him in Baltimore’s Afro-American. “He has by no means offered a Black man’s buggy. It’s uncertain if in his talks to skilled males within the South he has ever referred to the truth that he’s a Black man in an effort to make a sale.” That mentioned, the corporate did a lot of its consumer-facing promoting in Black-owned publications similar to The Disaster and Alexander’s Journal.
Transitioning the Enterprise to Bus Our bodies
Nevertheless, as a result of manufacturing of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile required important capital funding that by no means materialized, the corporate by no means reached full manufacturing. Over a three-year interval it rolled out an estimated 30 autos. In Detroit, in the meantime, Henry Ford’s shifting assembly line had lowered the time to construct a automobile from greater than 12 hours to only 1 hour and 33 minutes, pumping out hundreds of vehicles a day.
By 1919, the Patterson household, which had controlling pursuits within the firm, had shuttered the automobile enterprise and shifted to producing the our bodies for buses, together with hearses, shifting vans, supply vans and extra. Rebranded in 1921 because the Greenfield Bus Physique Firm, the Pattersons’ agency first offered its buses to native faculty districts. Via the ‘20s, the household maintained a thriving enterprise constructing largely bus our bodies, which had been constructed on Chevrolet, Ford and Normal Motors chassis.
In 1932, Frederick died on the age of 61, leaving a management void on the firm. Challenges of scale and problem elevating cash to increase made it powerful to remain afloat within the quickly consolidating auto trade. “Detroit simply bought to be an excessive amount of for us and we simply couldn’t compete,” mentioned Postell Patterson, a grandson of Charles Patterson, in 1939 when the household enterprise closed for good.
WATCH: The 2-night occasion, ‘The Automobiles That Constructed the World,’ premieres Sunday, Might 23 at 9/8c. Watch a preview now.
The Firm’s Legacy
Considered one of Greenfield’s final main orders was for 3 GMC
Greater than 150 years after its founding as a carriage maker, C.R. Patterson & Sons stays the one Black-founded and Black-owned automaker in American historical past.