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Driving History: The Saga of C.R. Patterson – America's Only Black Automaker

In automotive history, where giants like Ford and Chevrolet dominate the narrative, there exists a trailblazing journey often overlooked—the story of C.R. Patterson & Sons, the only African American-owned automobile company in the United States. Let's explore the life of Charles Richard Patterson and the enduring legacy of the Patterson family.

c.r. patterson black automaker

C.R. Patterson's Early Life and Escape from Slavery

Born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, Charles Richard Patterson's journey from bondage to business magnate is a testament to resilience and determination. In 1862, he managed to escape to freedom in Greenfield, Ohio, where he sought refuge and began shaping his destiny.


Mastering the Blacksmith Trade and Rising Prominence

In Greenfield, Patterson immersed himself in the blacksmith trade, showcasing an innate skill that would later propel him to prominence. His craftsmanship caught the attention of the Dines and Simpson Carriage and Coach Makers Company, where he rose to the position of foreman, overseeing a team of workers.

By 1873, Patterson took a significant step in his entrepreneurial journey, forming a partnership with J.P. Lowe to establish a carriage and wagon-making company. The venture marked the beginning of a legacy that would transcend generations.


Championing Civil Rights in Education

Patterson's commitment to civil rights extended beyond his business pursuits. In 1886, when his son, Frederick, was denied admission to the all-white high school in Greenfield, Patterson took legal action. Filing a case against the school board, he sought justice and equality. The court ruled in favor of Frederick, securing his right to attend the school alongside white students.


C.R. Patterson & Sons: A Beacon of Excellence

In 1893, Patterson purchased Lowe's share of the company, renaming it C.R. Patterson & Sons. This move marked the establishment of the first and only African American-owned and operated automobile company in the United States.

Under Patterson's leadership, the company initially focused on building and repairing horse-drawn buggies and carriages. However, recognizing the evolving transportation landscape, Patterson and his son Frederick pivoted to embrace the era of the "horseless carriage" in 1915.


Patterson-Greenfield Automobile: Crafting Excellence

The Patterson-Greenfield automobile, introduced in 1915, became a symbol of handcrafted excellence. Priced at $850, the car boasted a 30hp Continental 4-cylinder engine, showcasing Patterson's commitment to producing high-quality vehicles that rivaled those of larger manufacturers.



Navigating Challenges and Adapting to Change

The Patterson legacy faced numerous challenges, including competition from assembly line manufacturers and the financial hardships of the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Despite these adversities, the company, now led by Frederick Patterson, demonstrated resilience by shifting its focus to building bus and truck bodies.



End of an Era and Legacy

In 1939, after 74 years in operation, C.R. Patterson & Sons closed its doors. The company had sustained three generations and left an indelible mark on both African American and automotive history.


Charles Richard Patterson's legacy is a testament to the power of entrepreneurship, resilience, and a commitment to justice. From the blacksmith shop to the forefront of the automotive industry, Patterson's journey reflects the enduring spirit that continues to inspire generations.


Sources:

  1. National Museum of African American History and Culture. (n.d.). "The Only African American Automobile Company." https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/only-african-american-automobile-company

  2. Automobile Driving Museum. (n.d.). "Charles Richard Patterson." https://automobiledrivingmuseum.org/charles-richard-patterson/

  3. Automotive Hall of Fame. (n.d.). "Charles R. Patterson." https://www.automotivehalloffame.org/stories/charles-r-patterson/

  4. Greenfield Historical Society. (n.d.). "C.R. Patterson & Sons Company." http://www.greenfieldhistoricalsociety.org/ghs-Patterson-Auto.html

  5. History.com. (2023). "The First Black Carmaker: C.R. Patterson & Sons." https://www.history.com/news/first-black-carmaker-patterson-and-sons

  6. The Washington Post. (2023, February 18). "How America’s first — and only — Black automakers defied the odds." https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2023/02/18/cr-patterson-black-automaker/

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