For decades, Ed Davis of Davis Motor Sales in Detroit was thought to be the first Black person to own an automobile dealership. Davis, received a Studebaker franchise in 1940. But the record has been formally corrected. Yet another Kansas City person has been established as a “first.”
Homer Roberts, a persistent and successful car salesman of Kansas City who started his business in the 1920s, was the first Black person to own a car dealership, nearly 20 years ahead of Davis.
Roberts went from selling cars on a stoop to two full-service car dealerships, with maintenance and parts departments – one in Kansas City and another in Chicago.
Roberts was born in Ash Grove, MO, grew up in Wellington, KS, then studied electrical engineering at Kansas State Agricultural College. He moved to Kansas City after graduating, but quickly realized no one was willing to hire a Black electrical engineer.
Switching careers, in 1917, he decided to enlist in the US Army during World War I. While in the Army, he became the first Black man to attain the rank of lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps.
After the war, he returned to Kansas City in 1919. Understanding the power of advertising, he began placing ads to sell used cars in the Kansas City Call and Kansas City Sun. His cutting-edge ads quickly attracted the Black community, and selling exclusively to African Americans, he was able to sell 60 cars by the end of 1919.
The Roberts Building
Gaining lots of initial success, he moved to an indoor location and his sales continued to grow.
In 1923, he constructed a 9,500 square foot, two-story building that he later named the Roberts Building at 1826-30 Vine, fronting the corner of 19th and Vine.
The $70,000 building served as retail space for 14 retail business and six professional offices, all operated by Black business owners. July 29, 1923, was the formal opening of the new building, attended by over 3000 people.
His dealership originally was Roberts Co. Motor Mart. It had an 1,800-square-foot showroom, offices and service areas and space to store and display 60 vehicles. At its peak, the business employed 55 Blacks. Roberts sold insurance for the cars and also offered payment plans.
With his success at capturing the Negro market, many small, niche auto manufacturers entered into sales agreements with Roberts. Smaller companies like Hupmobile, Rickenbacker, Whippet, and Marmon saw potential in the Negro market and backed his business, landing him franchises by Hupmobile in 1923 and by Rickenbacker in 1925. He also signed a local Oldsmobile dealer to a distributorship arrangement in 1923.
This also helped Roberts land a Ford franchise that grew to feature an auto repair shop, parts store, and a 60-car showroom. By 1925, his dealership was ranked third in the United States for its sales of the Rickenbacker. A new facility offered painting, tires, repairs, upholstering, batteries, and a filling station.
During this period he was a broker for 15 White dealers in the Kansas City area who preferred not to have Blacks in their showrooms.
Expanding to Chicago
Wanting to expand, Roberts opened another dealership in Chicago, the second Black-owned dealership in the country in 1929. That dealership claimed the largest number of Hupmobile sales in the nation. But the Chicago dealership only remained in business for a short period of time and closed during the Great Depression, as did many other small businesses.
Roberts’ Kansas City dealership also closed shortly after.
Roberts gained some sales work from local White dealers who needed help targeting Black customers, but eventually Roberts rejoined the military at 56 years old during World War II.
Honorably discharged, he returned to Chicago and worked in public relations until he died in 1952.
The Kansas City Automotive Museum honors Roberts with a showroom featuring automobiles from his era. He is also featured on the documentary series, “Profiles of African-American Success.”