African American Automotive Inventors

To honor Black history, we’re celebrating eight of America’s most iconic African American figures in automotive history. From inventors to entrepreneurs to salespeople, these impressive individuals paved the way for change. These icons of African American innovation influenced the automotive industry as we know it. 

Without these tenacious men catalyzing change, our technology would not be where it is today.

Each of these individuals’ efforts inspired a new generation of automobile enthusiasts through their courage and success. Many of these names have been lost or forgotten throughout the decades. For this reason, recognizing their accomplishments and contributions to the automotive industry is more important than ever.

Before we kick off our celebration, let’s start with a bit of trivia:

Who was the first African American car manufacturer?

Frederick Douglas Patterson was the first African American car manufacturer. In 1915, he created the Patterson-Greenfield automobile. He was the son of the first impressive innovator on our list.  

8 African American automotive inventors to celebrate

1. C.R. Patterson | 1833–1910 

In 1833, Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation. While little is known about his time there, Patterson eventually made his way up to Greenfield, Ohio, where he became a blacksmith.

In 1873, Patterson joined forces with J.P. Lowe, a carriage maker in town, to form a high-quality carriage building business, C.R. Patterson & Sons

By the turn of the century, Patterson was the sole proprietor of the business. He employed an integrated workforce of about 50 and listed some 28 models. In 1910, he passed the business onto his son. 

2. George Washington Carver | 1864–1943

This agricultural chemist is perhaps the most prominent African American inventor in US history. During his time, George Washington Carver proved to be one of the most respected scientists in the country, regardless of race. 

As a bright student, he was the first African American admitted to Iowa State Agricultural College. He went on to head the department of agriculture at the Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute. 

Carver was a true man ahead of his time, both in his innovations and attitudes. For example, he was an early environmentalist. He pioneered new methods and crops, and worked side by side with local communities to elevate farming practices. This all-encompassing work helped resuscitate the South’s agriculture following the Civil War. 

While much of the country was still under segregation, Henry Ford invited Carver to come to Dearborn, Michigan and work with (not for) him in 1942. During his time with the Ford Motor Company, the esteemed scientist helped develop a synthetic rubber to compensate for wartime shortages. 

Carver's most famous inventions include special plastics, postage stamp glue, an alternative form of gasoline and more than 100 other important advances.  

3. Garrett Morgan | 1877–1963 

This innovative thinker hailed from Kentucky and was the seventh of 11 children. At just 14 years old, Garrett Morgan moved to Ohio in search of work. 

Morgan found a job first as a handyman and then repairing sewing machines. As a result, he developed the skills necessary to open his own repair shop in 1907. Morgan quickly became one of the nation’s top inventors. 

The self-starter earned enough to purchase his own car, which was a luxury at the time. While on drives to the city, Morgan took issue with the manual traffic lights of the era. 

Some of the manually operated lights at main intersections would switch from “Stop” to “Go” with no warning. Morgan found this ineffective and an opportunity for innovation. This was the inspiration for an interim warning position — what would become today’s yellow light.

The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. Later, he sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000.

4. Richard B. Spikes |1878–1963

Richard Bowie Spikes was a mechanic, saloon keeper, barber and the inventor of several important patents throughout history. 

Born in 1878, Spikes was always on the move until he settled with his wife and son in California in the early 1900s. Here, he invented a beer-tapper, self-locking rack for billiard cues, combination milk bottle opener/cover and the horizontal swinging barber’s chair. 

What fascinated Spikes most, however, was the automotive industry. 

Throughout his career, Spikes patented the:

  • Trolley pole arrester
  • Brake testing machine
  • Sampler and temperature check for automotive liquids
  • Improved gear shift and an automatic brake safety system

Additionally, while a patent has yet to be located, history widely credits Spikes with the invention of the turn signal. The industry as we know it wouldn’t be the same without his brilliant mind and innovative spirit.

5. Wendell Scott | 1921–1990

Our fifth automotive hero, Wendell Scott, was a trailblazer in automotive entertainment history. He stands tall as a catalyst for African American drivers in NASCAR races. 

Scott was born in Danville, Virginia. He learned to be an auto mechanic from his father and opened a shop after serving in the Army during World War II. 

At that time, NASCAR did not allow African Americans to race, so Scott raced in the Dixie Circuit to satisfy his need for speed. Scott's impressive skills on the track helped convince a NASCAR steward to grant him a license. This was the moment he became the first African American NASCAR licensee in history. 

Next, Scott went on to win the Jacksonville 200, becoming the first African American driver to win a NASCAR race in the top division. Following this landmark feat, he competed in a total of 495 Grand National races. 

6. Leonard Miller | 1934 - 

Leonard W. Miller grew up just outside of Philadelphia in the midst of the Great Depression. He fondly reminisced about falling in love with automobiles at a young age. 

In fact, in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he remembers admiring prominent white families “with rare cars that were beautiful and sounded good.” He continued by saying, “So, I said that was for me. And that’s what started me off to a lifetime of races.”

Miller went on to create the Miller Brothers Racing team. From 1969 to 1971, the group won dozens of races throughout Northeastern United States and quickly gained notoriety. 

As a result, Miller became the first African American owner to enter a vehicle in the Indianapolis 500.

Miller continued to pave the way for African Americans racers. In 1972, Miller created the Black American Racers Association. The organization focused on driver development and honoring African Americans in auto racing. 

At its height, it included 5,000 members from 20 states and several racing disciplines.

7. Homer B. Roberts | 1885  - 1952

This celebrated businessman strived for excellence in the automotive industry and also in defending our nation. In fact, Homer B. Roberts was the first Black man to attain the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps. 

After the war, Roberts moved back to his hometown of Kansas City. His entrepreneurial spirit and natural leadership revealed a need in his local community. He started a car dealership serving the African American community. 

With the help of the Kansas City Star, a prominent local Black newspaper at the time, Roberts secured 60 sales to all-Black drivers. After opening a new dealership called the Roberts Company Motor Mart, this self-made man achieved even more success over the next decade. The enterprise was built for growth. It acquired new office spaces and showrooms. As it hired more and more salespeople, this local business also provided competitive jobs to the community it served. 

Like many booming businesses prior to the Great Depression, the fate of the Roberts dealerships was sealed once the economic crisis hit. But, not before Roberts’ name was etched in automotive history as a pillar of his community.

8. McKinley Thompson Jr. | 1922 - 2006

Walking home from school one day in his native Queens, N.Y. neighborhood, a 12-year-old McKinley Thompson Jr. eyed a silver Chrysler DeSoto Airflow. 

“There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight,” he later told the Henry Ford Museum

“I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life — I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.”

After serving in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, Thompson entered and won a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. He was awarded a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. 

Soon after graduating, Thompson went to work for Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, Michigan, making him the first African American automobile designer. 

Some of Thompson’s first projects contributed to the Ford Mustang and the Ford Bronco.

Over the course of history there have been many prominent figures in the automotive industry. These eight African American heroes, however, showed incredible bravery and persistence as they worked to drive the industry forward and in overcoming racial injustices of the time.

Our Caliber team recognizes and celebrates those who have left their monumental mark on the automotive industry.

Sources:

https://magazine.northeast.aaa.com/daily/life/cars-trucks/black-pioneers-automotive-industry/

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