Car Culture

12 African Americans Who Changed The Auto Industry

12 African Americans Who Changed The Auto Industry

Let’s recognize their many contributions to the automotive industry during Black History Month.

In the past, as well as the present, African Americans are often not given the credit they are due for their contributions to society. The automotive industry is no exception. February is Black History Month, so let’s look at their accomplishments and achievements, sometimes against tremendous odds.

People Helping People

The early days of motoring were dangerous. That goes double for African Americans, who often found themselves unwelcome at gas stations and restaurants. There were entire towns that were best avoided for their own safety. Here are a couple of people who helped travelers find places where they would be welcome rather than shunned.

Victor Hugo Green

Victor Hugo Green

A simple postman from New York City, Green became increasingly concerned about the troubles African Americans faced as they embraced the automobile and began to travel. In the 1930s, segregation was in full force. Travelers had to navigate a nasty web of Jim Crow laws and discrimination all over the country, not just in the south.

In 1936, Victor Hugo Green published The Green Book, a detailed guide to help African American travelers find places they were welcome to eat or spend the night, as well as places to avoid completely. Green continued to publish and update this book all the way through 1966. He also opened a travel agency in 1947 specifically for African-American travelers, helping them find and book accommodations where they’d know they’d be welcome.

In his introduction to The Green Book, Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.” It’s a worthy goal, one worth continuing to strive for today.

Allen Threatt Sr.

Threatt established (and still owns today) a 160-acre homestead in Luther, Oklahoma, during the land rush of 1889. It’s not far from Edmond, a nearby “sundown town” where African Americans suffered dire consequences just for being seen in town after dark. 

Allen Threatt, Sr., built a small service station in 1915, one that welcomed travelers of all races. The Threatt family not only refueled African-American travelers, but they also offered overnight accommodations, including a cafe that opened in 1937 and a general safe haven in the Jim Crow south. Some refugees from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre stayed here during the immediate aftermath. They even hosted African-American baseball league games in their field.

Threatt Filling Station

A few years after opening, the government created U.S. Route 66, and the Threatt Filling Station just happened to be right along the new cross-country route. This made it an even more famous location, and the only African American-owned gas station on Route 66. Ironically, it was not included in The Green Book. The Threatt Filling Station was already so well known, Green didn’t feel it was necessary to mention it.

The station closed during the 1970s, but the building still exists today. I visited it myself during my Route 66 journey in October 2021. The National Parks Service added the Threatt Filling Station to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. The Threatt family still owns the land and the station today and is looking to restore the station to its former glory.

Idea Men

In the past, African-American inventors and creators were not always recognized for their achievements.  there was a common misconception that African Americans were less intelligent than their white counterparts. This was pure racism and completely untrue. Over time, historians have discovered many instances where ideas and creations whose credit was wrongly given to white inventors rather than the true creators. These are just a few: originally credited to white inventors and designers, but that true credit belongs to African Americans.

Richard Spikes

Richard Spikes

Known today as an inventor with eight patents to his name, Spikes made his living as a mechanic, a saloon keeper, and a barber. This experience both inspired and informed his later inventions, such as a beer keg tapper that is still in use today.

In the area of automobiles, Spikes is best known for inventing a way to keep a transmission’s gears in constant mesh, paving the way toward the modern automatic transmission. He also patented a method to measure the temperature of tank liquids, something we see in today’s cars as a coolant temperature sensor, as well as sensors for oil and transmission fluid. Some say Spikes also patented a turn signal design for Pierce-Arrow in the early 1910s, but no one has found a record of this particular patent.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan

Morgan was another prolific inventor of the early 1900s. His design for a gas mask was particularly timely for the nasty trench warfare of World War I. After witnessing a fatal car crash, Morgan created a device that would have prevented this particular incident: the three-signal traffic light.

Early traffic lights were a simple red/green affair. When cars still moved at a walking pace, you didn’t need much warning to come to a stop at a red light. As speeds increased, though, cars were unable to stop before running a light that had suddenly changed from green to red, potentially crashing into cross traffic. Morgan recognized the increasing need for a warning light between green and red that would advise drivers to begin slowing down so they would not enter the intersection after cross traffic had a green light.

McKinley Thompson, Jr.

After seeing a 1934 DeSoto Airflow as an impressionable 12-year-old, McKinley Thompson, Jr., decided he wanted to design cars. He gained experience as an engineer during World War II. After the war, he entered a car design contest for Motor Trend magazine and won. His prize was a scholarship at Ford, who hired Thompson in 1956.

Throughout his career, Thompson would work on such iconic cars as the Mustang and GT40. Though Thompson received no credit for the design of the original Bronco, recent research into the model’s history for the new model uncovered early sketches he made of the Bronco, which would strongly influence its final design.

Businessmen

In addition to his inventions, Garrett Morgan was also an entrepreneur. He owned a sewing machine repair shop, a tailoring business, and a newspaper, among others. Although Morgan had no businesses in the automotive industry, some other notable African Americans did.

Frederick Patterson

Frederick Patterson
Author: Public Domain This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Image dimensions edited to 1200x900px

After taking over the family carriage business C.R. Patterson and Sons in 1910, Frederick Patterson set his sights on a new product: the automobile. This was nothing unusual at the time, except that Patterson and his family were African American. Out of hundreds, maybe even thousands of small auto manufacturers in America at that time, C.R. Patterson and Sons was the only African American owned and operated car manufacturer.

In 1915, the company released the Greenfield-Patterson with a price of just $850, just a few dollars more than the Ford Model T. While Patterson’s car was comparable in price and quality to its competitor, Patterson’s small business could not keep up with Ford’s mass production and the economies of scale that enabled. After switching to building trucks and buses for a while, C.R. Patterson shut down in 1939.

Edward Davis

Edward Davis

With a lack of employment opportunities for African Americans in Shreveport, Louisiana, Edward Davis moved to Detroit to pursue his love of automobiles. He opened his own repair shop, which enabled him to make a living.

One of his regular customers just happened to be a plant supervisor. Confident in his skills, he offered Davis a job at the Dodge Hamtramck assembly facility, which he accepted. Later he left the plant to work for the supervisor’s son at a Dodge dealer, where Davis was one of the top salesmen.

Davis struck out on his own in 1938 and soon joined forces with Studebaker to sell their cars. Studebaker filed for bankruptcy soon afterward, but Davis remained optimistic, aiming for a franchise from one of the Big 3 (GM, Ford, and Chrysler). For many years, they denied him simply due to the color of his skin. But finally, in 1963, Davis opened a Chrysler/Plymouth dealership in Detroit, becoming the first African American to own a new car dealership. In 1996, Davis also became the first African American to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Ralph Gilles

Enthusiasts may know Ralph Gilles as the President and CEO of Chrysler’s SRT brand, high-performance cars ranging from the Dodge Neon SRT-4, to the Dodge Viper SRT-10, to the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and Demon, and more. Gilles is an enthusiast and active racer himself.

His background, however, is in design, dating back to when he was a kid. When Gilles was 14, his aunt sent one of his car designs to none other than Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca. Much to their surprise, they received a reply from K. Neil Walling, Chrysler’s head of design at the time, suggesting that Gilles go to design school to pursue this as a career.

Gilles did exactly that, then joined Chrysler as a designer in 1992. He’s responsible for the design of the Chrysler 300, a car that helped redefine the brand. Gilles later served as Senior Vice President of Design for Chrysler. When the company merged with Fiat, Gilles was promoted to Head of Design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a position he still holds today.

Edward Welburn

Edward T. Welburn

A story similar to Gilles is that of Edward Welburn. After becoming infatuated with a Cadillac he saw at the Philadelphia Auto Show when he was 11, he wrote to General Motors about becoming a car designer. Years later, GM gave Welburn an internship, and he stayed at GM through his entire 44-year career in the industry.

As GM’s Vice President of Global Design from 2003 to 2016, Welburn oversaw the development of some of GM’s most iconic vehicles, including the Corvette and Camaro. He also took part in the development of the Cadillac Escalade, which is fitting because it was a Cadillac that caught his interest in the automotive industry in the first place.

Motorsports

Another place where African Americans have excelled is on the race track. Though racist discrimination locked them out for many years, once given the chance to prove themselves, these racers have clearly demonstrated they can not only compete, but also win.

Wendell Oliver Scott

Somebody has to be the first, and Wendell Scott blazed the trail for African-American competitors in NASCAR – at a time when they weren’t exactly welcome. Scott loved speed as much as anyone. NASCAR’s Dixie Circuit was struggling in 1951, so as a gimmick, they wanted to add an African-American driver to the race to boost interest. Based on his extensive history of speeding tickets and evasion, the local police recommended Scott for the job. He became NASCAR’s first full-time African-American driver.

Once on the circuit, racism was still in full force. Scott did not receive the parts sponsorships given freely to his white competitors. He called upon his engineering background from World War II, plus his two sons, to keep his race car in working order. When he won a race at Jacksonville Speedway park in 1963, race officials refused to wave the checkered flag for him, giving the win to a white driver instead. Allegedly, the officials didn’t want to see an African-American man kiss the white beauty queen, a privilege typically granted to race winners. Eventually, Scott did receive his prize money for taking first place, but he never got the recognition for the win that he deserved.

During Wendell Scott’s 13-year NASCAR career, he finished in the top 10 in 147 races. His career may have begun as part of a gimmick, but in the end, he showed everyone what a true racer is made of. The Richard Pryor film Greased Lightning is loosely based on Scott’s story and career.

Bubba Wallace

Bubba Wallace
Author: Zach Catanzareti Photo This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image dimensions edited to 1200x900px

Following directly in Wendell Scott’s footsteps, Bubba Wallace is one of the most successful African-American drivers in the history of NASCAR. He first made his mark in the K&N Pro Series East through the Drive for Diversity program. Wallace has also competed in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, as well as the premier Cup series, as the only African-American driver in these series at the time he competed. Wallace earned his first Cup win at Talledega on October 4, 2021 – the first Cup win by an African American since Wendell Scott himself.

Wallace has been an outspoken advocate for racial justice, the Black Lives Matter movement, and for banning the Confederate battle flag from races, which NASCAR made its official policy in June 2020. Soon afterward, there was an uproar when a noose was found in Wallace’s garage bay at a race. An FBI investigation determined that the noose had been a simple pull rope for the garage door that had been there for over a year and that Wallace was not a direct target. He suffered a backlash on social media for calling this out, but he also refused to back down on his advocacy.

Sir Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton
Author: Morio This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Image dimensions edited to 1200x900px

No list of racing drivers of color would be complete without Sir Lewis Hamilton, the only such Formula 1 driver to date. At the time of writing, Hamilton has won a joint-record seven World Drivers’ Championship titles (tied with the great Michael Schumacher), and holds the records for the most wins (103), pole positions (103), and podium finishes (182), proving that he’s a world-class racing driver in his own right.

Hamilton got his start in radio-controlled cars at age 5, followed by go-karts at age 6. He worked his way up through the ranks of Formula Renault, Formula 3, and GP2 before landing a Formula 1 seat with McLaren in 2007. He took over Schumacher’s seat at Mercedes in 2012, where he has remained ever since and dominated the field. Hamilton won four world championships in a row between 2017 and 2020 and was denied a fifth in a highly controversial conclusion to the final race of the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi. Controversy aside, no one can deny that Hamilton is one of the top racing drivers of modern times.

Justin-Hughes

Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.

Justin Hughes
Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.

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    1 Comment

    1. This is a good article but has left out two notable omissions. In the NHRA, Antron Brown was the first African American to win the Top Fuel championship in 2012 and went on to win that championship in 2015 and 2016. JR Todd is the first African American to win the Funny Car championship in 2018.

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