Influential African Americans in Automotive History

 

Black History Month is an opportunity every February to acknowledge and celebrate the black Americans that played an important role in the development of the United States. This year, we’ve decided to observe Black History Month in our own special way by highlighting some of the influential African Americans who changed the automotive industry for the better. Here are a few of the incredible African Americans who paved the way for the automotive industry! 

 

Charlie Wiggins 

 

Born in 1897 in Evansville Indiana, Charlie Wiggins spent his childhood shining shoes outside of an auto repair shop. He was later invited inside to work where he discovered his love of cars. In 1922, Wiggins opened his own shop and began building a race car from salvaged parts he found in a junkyard. He had dreams of competing in the Indy 500, but his skin color made him ineligible. Wiggins worked with other African American racers to form the “Gold and Glory Sweepstakes,” an annual 100-mile race for black drivers. The first race drew massive crowds of 12,000 people and was the largest African-American sporting event yet. In 1936, Wiggins lost a leg in a 13-car crash in the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. After making himself a wooden prosthetic, he soldiered on and continued building cars, training other drivers, and fighting for African American participation in motor racing until his death in 1979. 

 

C.R. Patterson

 

 

Charles Richard Patterson, or C.R. Patterson, was born into slavery in 1833 on a Virginia plantation. Records show that Patterson escaped slavery and went to Greenfield, Ohio. Patterson became established in Greenfield as a blacksmith, and eventually worked for a carriage-building business. In 1873, Patterson partnered with a white carriage manufacturer, J.P. Lowe, and in 1893 bought out Lowe and became the sole owner, renaming the company “C.R. Patterson and Sons.” Patterson died in 1910 and passed the business to his son, Frederick. Frederick noticed more “horseless carriages” on the roads, and in 1915 C.R. Patterson and Sons produced their first car called the “Patterson-Greenfield Automobile.”  Frederick became the first African American to own and operate an automobile manufacturing company. The company became established as a reputable automobile manufacturer, but they couldn’t keep up with Ford’s manufacturing capacity. In 1932, Frederick died, and the company was hit by the effects of the Great Depression. In 1939 they ended production. 

 

Garrett Morgan

 

Garret Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky. He began his career as a sewing machine mechanic with only an elementary school education. A voracious inventor, Morgan obtained several patents for inventions including an improved sewing machine, a new traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a breathing device that later provided a blueprint for World War I gas masks. Morgan’s great contribution to the safety of the automotive industry was his invention of a new traffic light. After witnessing a carriage accident, Morgan acquired a patent for a new type of traffic signal with a warning light to alert drivers to stop. This light was a rudimentary version of the three-light traffic signals seen today. Garrett eventually sold his patent to General Electric for $40,000. 

 

Leonard Miller

 

Born in 1934, Leonard Miller gained his love for cars during his childhood in suburban Philadelphia. In 1972, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association with Wendell Scott, Ron Hines, and Malcolm Durham. Scott, as honorary chairman, went on to become the first black man to compete in NASCAR. The association was formed to honor black drivers and mechanics in the racing industry, and it grew to over 5,000 members. In 1972, he became the first black owner to enter a car in the Indianapolis 500. Miller later founded Miller Racing Group with his son, and they became the first African American team to win a track championship in NASCAR history, winning the stock car title at the Old Dominion Speedway in Virginia in 2005. 

 

At Steve Landers Kia, we’re inspired by the incredible drive, innovation, and determination of these African-American automotive pioneers. These trail-blazers fought to make racing and the automotive industry a welcoming space for all people, regardless of the color of their skin, and we’re grateful for their contributions.

 
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