C R Patterson: First and Only Black Automobile Manufacturer
Born into slavery on a West Virginia plantation in April 1833, C.R. Patterson escaped to Ohio in 1862 and found work as a blacksmith for the Greenfield, OH, based carriage-building business Dines and Simpson. Patterson eventually partnered with J.P. Lowe, a local carriage manufacturer who happened to be White, to build their own carriages.
When Lowe died, Patterson took over the business and renamed his new venture “C.R. Patterson & Sons Company.” Patterson eventually offered 28 types of horse-drawn vehicles and employed over a dozen workers. He died in 1910, but not before experimenting with the manufacture of gas-powered “horseless carriages.” Patterson’s company is considered the world’s first and only African-American owned and founded automobile company.
It was actually Patterson’s son, Frederick, who converted the company entirely over to automobile manufacturing with the debut of the Patterson-Greenfield car. It sold for $850, featured a four-cylinder Continental engine and was comparable to the contemporary Ford Model T.
Unable to compete with Ford’s manufacturing capability, C.R. Patterson & Sons switched to production of truck, bus and other utility vehicle bodies installed on chassis from major auto manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors. The company’s school bus bodies became popular as Midwestern school districts began to convert from horse-drawn to internal-combustion-fired transportation by 1920.
While no Patterson-Greenfield automobiles are known to have survived, rare examples of C.R. Patterson & Sons carriages and buggies can still be found in museums across the Midwest.
Charlie Wiggins, Race Car Driver and Founder of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes Race
Born in 1897 in Evansville, IN, Wiggins became a mechanic after working his way up at a local White-owned garage. He opened his own garage when he moved to Indianapolis in 1922 and began building his own racecar with salvaged junkyard parts. He wanted to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in the car he dubbed “the Wiggins Special,” but the color of his skin made him ineligible to compete.
Wiggins and other African-American drivers responded by boldly forming their own racing league. He helped establish the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, an annual 100-mile race for Black drivers on a one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The first race, in 1924, drew a crowd of 12,000 and was the largest sporting event held for African Americans up to that point.
Over the next decade, Wiggins would win three Gold and Glory Sweepstake championships. His notoriety as a mechanic and racer and his outspoken actions against segregation in auto racing made him a frequent target of the KKK, who attacked and vandalized his home on more than one occasion.
During the 1936 running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, Wiggins lost a leg in a 13-car crash. He made himself a wooden prosthetic and for the next 40 years built and repaired cars while training and advising other drivers and mechanics. He also continued to fight for African-American participation in motor racing until his death in Indianapolis in 1979 at the age of 82.
Wendell Scott, First Licensed NASCAR Driver
A high school dropout and WWII soldier, Wendell Scott ran an auto-repair shop in his hometown of Danville, VA. Scott developed his skills as a driver running moonshine on the back roads of Virginia. In 1949 he was caught and sentenced to three years of probation.
On weekends, he regularly attended local stock car races where he was forced to sit in the Blacks-only section. Then in 1952, Danville race officials decided to recruit a Black driver to compete in a one-time promotional gimmick. When asked to name the best African-American driver in town, the police recommended Scott, who ended up placing in one of his whiskey-running cars.
Initially banned from competing in the NASCAR circuit because of the color of his skin, Scott built a reputation for himself winning race after race in smaller stock car venues. Scott eventually became the first licensed African-American NASCAR driver. He was also the first to own his own team. Competing in nearly 500 races in NASCAR’s top division — from 1961 through the early 1970s — he finished in the top ten 147 times.
In 1977, Scott’s compelling story of overcoming racism to excel in his sport was made into a movie, “Greased Lightening,” starring Richard Pryor.