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Charles Richard Patterson was an early automobile manufacturer who headed up the first – and to date – only African American–owned auto business.
According to Smithsonian, Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833. Like many of our enslaved ancestors, not much is known about his life on the plantation, and little is confirmed regarding how he later came to settle in Greenfield, Ohio, a town with strong abolitionist sympathies. It’s rumored that his family arrived in the 1840s, possibly after purchasing their freedom; others hypothesize Patterson alone escaped in 1861. Nonetheless, once freed he learned the skills of the blacksmith and found work in the carriage-making trade, where he developed a reputation for his unmatched quality.
By 1873, he formed a business partnership with another local carriage maker, J.P. Lowe, who was white, and twenty years later became sole proprietor of the renamed C.R. Patterson & Sons in 1893. It was a successful business employing an integrated workforce of 35-50 by 1900 and built 28 models, from simple open buggies to larger and more expensive closed carriages for doctors and other professionals.
Charles Patterson was also awarded patents for the following devices: a trill coupling (#364,849) in 1887; a furniture caster (#452,940) in 1891; a vehicle dash (#803,356) in 1905. Clay Gordon patented a buggy top (#983,992) that was assigned to C.R. Patterson & Sons Co. (a co-partnership) in 1911 and Homer C. Reed patented a combination ladder that was assigned to F.D. Patterson in 1910, according to African American Registry.
At the dawn of the Automobile Age in the early 20th century, hundreds of small to medium sized car companies were founded and began manufacturing as American society transitioned from horse-drawn carriages to vehicles with an internal combustion engine. Slow to embrace the changing demand, Patterson’s business continued to build and repair buggies and carriages until his death in 1910, when the company was passed on to his son, Frederick.
Frederick Patterson, already a pioneer in college, sports, and business, reported to the company’s board, “In 1902 there was one car to 65,000 people, and by 1909 there was one vehicle for every 800 people…I believe it’s time for us to build a Patterson horseless carriage.” Frederick would go on to lead the company’s transition into the automotive world and by 1915, Patterson-Greenfield automobiles were on the road with the highest quality standards.
Available at the sticker price of $685, the Patterson-Greenfield was described by the company:
“Our car is made with three distinct purposes in mind. First — It is not intended for a large car. It is designed to take the place originally held by the family surrey. It is a 5-passenger vehicle, ample and luxurious. Second — It is intended to meet the requirements of that class of users, who, though perfectly able to spend twice the amount, yet feel that a machine should not engross a disproportionate share of expenditure, and especially it should not do so to the exclusion of proper provisions for home and home comfort, and the travel of varied other pleasurable and beneficial entertainment. It is a sensibly priced car. Third — It is intended to carry with it (and it does so to perfection) every conceivable convenience and every luxury known to car manufacture. There is absolutely nothing shoddy about it. Nothing skimp and stingy.”
In 1918, having built by some estimates between 30 and 150 vehicles, C.R. Patterson & Sons halted auto production and concentrated once again on the repair side of the business. This would largely be influenced by assembly line manufacturing behemoths in Detroit like Ford and Chevrolet, according to Automobile Driving Museum. Their small independent shop later struggled to compete and with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, a devastating toll on the longevity of their company’s survival was felt.
Adapting to the deprived economy, Frederick pivoted from solely manufacturing and began to construct bus and truck bodies to fit on other manufacturers’ chassis.
In 1939 the company closed its doors after 74 years. C.R. Patterson had sustained three generations. Though no Patterson-Greenfield automobiles are known to survive today, Charles Patterson and his son Frederick built and sustained a business that lasted several generations and earned a place not just in African American history, but in automotive history as well.
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