Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans on the month of February, and to commemorate it, we want to remember a few
of the greatest contributions that have influenced and shaped the automotive industry. From innovators to automotive company owners.
They may not be well-known names, but these African-American inventors and entrepreneurs revolutionized the automobile industry and should be recognized for their efforts. From becoming the first black American to own a "Big Three" dealership, inventing the fundamental structure of an automatic transmission, creating the stoplight, designing an iconic Bronco, breaking the boundaries of NASCAR or being the first and only black automaker. They were pioneers whose names will forever be engraved in the history of the automotive industry.
Let’s start with Frederick Douglas Patterson – born 1871 and died 1932. Not only does Patterson have the distinction of being the first African
American to play in the Ohio State University football team in 1891, but when he returned to his dad’s carriage-making business he proceeded to turn it
into a car company.
He made the Greenfield-Patterson automobile of 1915, offered in closed touring and convertible-top roadster models making 150 of them. The cars competed directly with the Ford Model T and sold for the same price – about $850. He was the first and only African American to own and operate a car manufacturing company.
There is another man, dubbed the first African-American car designer, and that’s McKinley Thompson Jr. Born in 1922 and died in 2006, he grew up in Queens, New York.
Thompson was hired as Ford's first Black designer in 1956, after earning his degree in transportation design at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. While Thompson was not the designer of record for Ford's game-changing 4x4 Bronco, he penned early sketches that are now instantly recognizable as inspiration for the final product. He also contributed to the design of the Ford Mustang and GT40 race car. McKinley's role in the original Bronco's design was relatively unknown until Ford archivists began to dig for materials as part of the nameplate's revival. The discovery of those early Bronco sketches led Ted Ryan, Ford's chief archivist and heritage brand manager, to make the connection.
Another great inventor was Richard Spikes who holds eight patents, awarded between 1907 and 1946. According to BlackPast, his inventive work came from his experience as a mechanic, saloon keeper, and a barber. These three occupations would inspire Spikes to create and develop patents for the beer tapper that is being used today, brake testing machine, milk bottle opener and cover, and many more. But his most influential invention is the Automatic Gear Shift Device that created the fundamental structure of what is known today as the automatic transmission. He is also known for developing and creating automobile turn signals, but there is no patent record on file of his involvement.
Garrett Morgan son of former slaves, was another prolific entrepreneur and inventor of the early 1900s. As an inventor, he created the gas mask, zigzag stitching device, and much more. However, in 1923 one of his most important patents was awarded: the three-signal traffic light. It was a T-shaped warning light that helped direct the flow of traffic. His inspiration to create this system came after he witnessed a fatal car crash. Morgan would later sell his patent to General Electric for $40,000. His T-shaped invention created the infrastructure of modern traffic lights that we know and rely on today.
African Americans have made their mark globally in the American automotive industry, from the pioneers to modern-day revolutionaries. The future is bright for more black figures in the automotive industry.
Black History Month is extremely important to reminisce our growth and remind us of the efforts we need to input and manifest Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries’ dreams of the African race. Propagating their efforts to eliminate racial injustice, improve education and improve social standing is only the tip of the iceberg. Because of them, we can do what was almost impossible during their time.