First Culture

Move Over Henry Ford, Meet The First Black Automobile Manufacturer

It began in the carriage company Dines and Simpson, in Greenfield, Ohio where Charles Rich Patterson had migrated to from Virginia just before the Civil War. Born slave, he had escaped slavery at 28 by crossing the Virginia Allegheny Mountains, hiking through West Virginia and crossing the chilling Ohio River to settle in for a seemly brighter future in the North.

Working as a blacksmith for the carriage company up until 1873 and by which time he was married with five children, also well known and trusted for being an African American with credibility in his art, Patterson entered into a partnership with JP Lowe, a white carriage maker.

The company birthed from the collaboration besides being unbelievable at a time so tainted with the difficulties of racial isolation was laudably able to make quality carriages within the next decade. When Lowe passed, Patterson bought over his share of the company and in 1893, exactly thirty-one years after he moved to Greenfield was left with his own company which he named CR Patterson and Sons Company.

As the name implied, the re-branded outfit employed the assistance of his two sons, Fred and Samuel (who died shortly after). The company built 28 types of horse-drawn vehicles, a different breed of engine powered carriages, employed approximately 10-15 individuals and was known for its motto, if it’s a Patterson it’s a good one.

By 1902, there was one car to every 65,000 people, by 1909, there was one to every 800 and when Patterson passed on in 1910, his son Fred cognizant of the recent developments induced the transition of his father’s company into a mainstream automobile outfit. It is believed that Patterson had before his demise established most of the ground work for the first Patterson-Greenfield car which launched  in 1915 and was sold for $850.

The two-door vehicle featured a full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, electric starting and lighting, a split windshield for ventilation and was fitted with a four-cylinder Continental engine. The car was comparable to the contemporary Ford Model T and in some cases is reported to have in fact been superior, but C.R. Patterson & Sons due to lack of necessary capital stopped production of the vehicle in 1919, about four years after it rolled off its stable.

Contradictory data has been stated regarding the Patterson car, on one hand, it is said that that the company was making cars in 1902, while another writer states that the Patterson car made its debut on Sept. 23, 1915.

Nonetheless, they subsequently moved on to producing trucks and buses which had more market value for both schools and manufacturing companies. Fred who was responsible for catapulting the company to its heights after his father’s legacy died in 1932, and the company which was at the time of his demise known as Greenfield Bus Body Company began to fragment and by 1939, perpetually shut its doors.

There is no known model of the Patterson-Greenfield car available till date, however there are variations of the family’s horse drawn wagons in museums and select places across America.

Through the Patterson story and how one slave was able to build an empire, one is reminded again of the resillence of black people perhaps ironically captured in this almost unrelated quote by Henry Ford;  a customer can have a car any color he or she wants so long as it is black!

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Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Senior Editor working out of East Africa.

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Move Over Henry Ford, Meet The First Black Automobile Manufacturer

by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke time to read: 2 min