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The Black Pioneers and Trailblazers of the Automotive Industry

The Black Pioneers and Trailblazers of the Automotive Industry

By Ashley Effinger

For decades, the automotive industry overlooked Black pioneers who tirelessly worked to make cars safer and roads more accessible. Thankfully, no longer! Here are seven of these extraordinary individuals that shattered color barriers in this fascinating world – transforming not only how we get around but also making for a better nation altogether.

Garrett Morgan Black Pioneer in Automotive

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan may be the most ambitious and great inventor of his generation! Morgan was so great that he not only owned a car (which made him one of the first African American in Cleveland to do so!) but also created history by inventing and patenting an incredible three-position traffic signal.

Born in Kentucky, but based in Cleveland by the 1920s – he quickly became one of America’s top inventors. Garrett designed a hair refiner and even an early version of the gas mask—but it was after witnessing that nasty collision at an intersection which really lit something up inside him! The traffic signals back then were only two-positions: “Go” or “Stop”. But who knew when they switched? So with boldness unmatched for his time, Garrett created three positions to make sure drivers had plenty enough warning before switching directions…so no more abrupt stops OR cars stuck right through intersections like bugs on a windshield.

In the early 20th century, Garrett Morgan took an innovative approach to improving public safety. He invented a cleverly shaped three-way traffic signal that changed urban transportation forever—and earned him a patent! A reminder of this genius’ work can still be seen at the Smithsonian Museum of American History today. However, for many he will always be remembered as one who rose up against injustices through his involvement in Cleveland’s NAACP chapter and founding its beloved African American newspaper ‘The Cleveland Call’. Garrett Morgan truly embodies ingenuity with heart!

C.R. Patterson

Charles Richard (C.R) Patterson had a remarkable life story; born into slavery in Virginia, he bravely escaped to settle in Ohio and used his expertise as a blacksmith to set up an impressive business making expertly crafted horse-drawn carriages – that would later become the first African American owned automobile manufacturer! In 1893, C.R bought out his partner and formed ‘C. R. Patterson & Sons’ paving the way for what was then considered futuristic technology: automobiles! After Fredrick took over upon his father’s death in 1910, it wasn’t until we could really see how far this family trekked towards great success against all odds of racial prejudice at their time… What started off with one man bearing iron tools has since welcomed its legacy onto four wheels!!

In 1915, C.R. Patterson & Sons made history by producing the first car ever manufactured and owned by an African American company proving their automotive industry chops! Though it sold for a cool $850 back then and could easily go toe to toe with Ford’s Model T — no one expects you to find one of these diamonds today…unless your great granddaddy has been hiding something from ya 😉 However, some resilient C.R. Patterson & Sons Company horse drawn carriages still live on as living proof that this trailblazing company remains historically unparalleled within the States’ auto landscape even 100 years later!

Charlie Wiggins

Despite the racism of his time, Charlie Wiggins refused to be held back. From humble beginnings in Evansville Indianapolis, he rose to become one of America’s greatest race car drivers – earning him the title ‘Negro Speed King’. Incredibly talented and unwilling to take no for an answer, short-sighted Indy 500 organizers barred him from competing due their skin color prejudice; however this motivated Wiggins and several other African American racers who banded together with a shared dream that lead them all on a wild ride around tracks across the country as part of The Colored Speedway Association! His legacy continues today as a beacon of resilience and determination!

In 1924, the Colored Speedway Association made history by debuting its highly anticipated Gold and Glory Sweepstakes – a 100-mile race that drew 12,000 spectators when it first launched. And for 10 years running, legendary driver Wiggins came out on top winning three sweepstake championships!

Fast forward to 1934: Bill Cummings is set to compete in the Indy 500 with none other than Charlie Wiggins behind him… but he had one problem – Jim Crow Laws were preventing them from moving freely. No worries though; Wiley gave his genius plan of disguise a go making himself appear like an ordinary janitor so they could get through without suspicion – AND IT WORKED! With Wiggin’s help, Cummins took home first place with an impressive record lap time!

Wendell Scott was a maverick on the racetrack! Born in Danville, Virginia to his auto-mechanic father he quickly earned a reputation as the fastest driver around. His prowess behind the wheel began with driving taxis and running illegal moonshine whiskey before being recruited by local racing owners hoping that hiring an African American would draw bigger attendance numbers – which it did thanks to Wendell’s stellar track record winning 120 races across lower divisions while NASCAR continued turning him away based solely on race.


Leonard Miller

Leonard Miller, a trailblazer in the world of auto racing, was driven to success from an early age. Growing up outside Philadelphia during the 1930s exposed him to luxury cars owned by wealthy white families– and gave birth to his passion for speed. Miller Brothers Racing formed with Leonard at its helm went on win dozens of races throughout New England between 1969-1971 – making him not only one America’s top racers but also first African American team owner ever compete (and WIN!) Indianapolis 500 & NASCAR!

In 1972, automotive pioneer Miller, became the trailblazing owner and founder of one of auto racing’s most influential accomplishments — entering a car in Indy 500 as an African American team with national sponsorship under their belts; he also created The Black Automobile Racers Association which was made up over 5000 members from 20 states! This incredible father-son duo went on to become the first pair of African Americans ever to win a NASCAR track championship – paving way for generations behind them who strive to make it big in motorsports. Miller was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973. Many of his awards, trophies and other memorabilia are currently housed at the Smithsonian Institute.

Homer B. Roberts

Homer B. Roberts broke a barrier in more ways than one – he was not only the first African American car dealer, but also the first Black man to reach Lieutenant rank of the United States Army Signal Corps! After returning home from World War I, Roberts’ business venture saw success: His very first advertisement for 7 used cars ran in Kansas City “Star,” and within 12 months he had secured sales to 60 customers- all people of color! By 1923 his ambition flew higher when opened up shop with a brand new dealership aptly named after himself – “Robert Company Motor Mart” Talk about making history behind (and underneath) the wheel!

Smaller automobile manufacturers saw potential in the African American market and backed his business. This helped Roberts land franchises with Hupmobile, Rickenbacker and Oldsmobile.

Hit hard by the Depression, the dealership closed in 1929 – but not before Roberts had etched his name in history.

Richard B. Spikes

Richard Bowie Spikes was a man of many talents who swept through history with an insatiable appetite for inventiveness. From barbering, to beer-tapping and even overseeing saloons, you could find him in all manner of places! But his true passion was automobiles; the puff from their engines blew life into his projects as he tinkered away throughout California at the turn of last century. And we have those inventions to thank – trolley pole arresters? Check! Brake testing machines? He invented them too! How about gear shifts AND automatic brake safety systems?! Yep, got ’em covered thanks our boy Richard!, though mysteriously there is no patent found on what has been widely credited as one more ingenious invention by this genius: Turn signals. So if it wasn’t so easy pointing left when turning your car back then…you know who to blame 😉

Mckinley Thompson Jr.

On one fateful day in 1934, a boy named McKinley Thompson Jr. from Queens, NY had his life forever changed after he laid eyes on an incredible silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow. As if the heavens themselves were signaling to him that this was meant to be, rays of light shone through patchy clouds and illuminated the car like a searchlight – leaving young Thompsons so captivated it’s said he declared right then and there: “I want to be an automobile designer!”

After serving his country during World War II, McKinley Thompson wanted to pursue a career in automobile design. So he entered and won an incredible competition from Motor Trend magazine – providing him with the scholarship opportunity of a lifetime! He used this chance as a stepping stone into Ford’s advanced design studio at Dearborn, MI where he became the first African American car designer ever hired by one of America’s biggest automakers. His skills were quickly put to use for projects like sketches for the mustang but it was his work on what would become iconic attributes or later models like The Bronco which really made him stand out amongst other talented designers around that time period. Here we have proof that if you set your heart and mind onto something great, anything is possible – just ask McKinley Thompson!

Did we miss any? What other Black pioneers in the automotive industry do you know about? Share with us on Instagram @exclusivemotorcarsllc