February is Black History Month, and to celebrate; we are highlighting some of the most iconic African American figures in automotive history. From inventors to salespeople to entrepreneurs, these individuals paved the way for change. They influenced the automotive industry as we know it. Over the last two hundred years, automobiles have emerged, evolved, and been put to the test. Without these brave individuals catalyzing change, our technology would not be where it is today.
George Washington Carver | 1864–1943
In 1942, agricultural chemist George Washington Carver received an invitation from Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company to work with him in Dearborn, Michigan. Before this monumental moment, Carver achieved success in many ways, such as becoming the first African American student at Iowa State Agricultural College, heading the department of agriculture at the Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute, and becoming one of the most respected scientists in the country after helping to resuscitate the South’s agriculture. During his time with Ford, the esteemed scientist helped develop a synthetic rubber to help compensate for wartime shortages.
C.R. Patterson | 1833–1910
In 1833, Charles Richard Patterson was born on a Virginia plantation into slavery. Patterson eventually made his way up to Greenfield, Ohio, and 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 company, employing an integrated workforce of about 50. They listed some 28 models, and would pass the business onto his son in 1910.
Garrett Morgan | 1877–1963
Born in Kentucky as the seventh of 11 children, Garrett Morgan moved to Ohio at just 14 years old to look for work. Finding a job first as a handyman and then repairing sewing machines, Morgan developed the skills necessary to open his repair shop in 1907. With some success under his belt, Morgan quickly became one of the nation’s top inventors and earned enough to purchase a car, a luxury at the time. While driving in the city, Morgan noticed manually-operated traffic lights at some main intersections. They were ineffective as they would switch from “Stop” to “Go” with no warning. This revelation led to Morgan’s idea for an interim warning position—what would become today’s yellow light. The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. He would later sell the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000.
Richard B. Spikes | 1878–1963
Richard Bowie Spikes was a mechanic, saloon keeper, barber, and the inventor of several essential patents throughout history. Spikes was always on the move until he settled with his wife and son in California in the early 1900s. He invented a beer-tapper, self-locking rack for billiard cues, a combination milk bottle opener, and a cover and horizontal swinging barber’s chair. What fascinated Spikes most, however, was the automotive industry. Spikes patented a trolley pole arrestor, brake testing machine, sampler, temperature check for automotive liquids, an improved gear shift, and an automatic brake safety system throughout his career. Additionally, while a patent has yet to surface, Spikes is widely credited 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.
Brehanna Daniels: the first African-American female pit crew member to work a race in the Monster Energy Series. The Monster Energy Series is the NASCAR’S top series and Brehanna made it her goal to work in the pits, and she did just that. While finishing her senior year at Norfolk State, NASCAR approached her about joining their drive for diversity program to attract women to the sport. She said yes and the rest is history. Ironically, before then she had never even changed a tire. Daniels proved that she could hang with the best of them!
Homer Roberts: First African American Car Dealership Owner
Homer Roberts was critical to the advancement of African American society by exclusively brokering deals to many first time African American car buyers, and built his business from 7 used cars to a Ford franchise of 60 cars. Homer Roberts not only became the first African American dealership owner, but led the industry in sales for Rickenbacker, an American automobile manufacturer selling sport coupes, touring cars, and sedans in the 20’s. Homer Roberts then went on to build out to a Ford franchise showroom, service and parts department, body shop, and even a gas station. Not only was he first, Homer Roberts led the nation in Hupmobile and Rickebacker sales in the 1920’s.
Charlie Wiggins: Became one of the country’s great race car drivers, despite being barred from the Indy 500.
Born in 1897, Charlie Wiggins began apprenticing at a local automobile repair shop in his native Evansville, Ind. In 1922, he moved to Indianapolis, opened his own shop and built a race car out of nothing but junkyard parts. Nicknamed the “Wiggins Special,” it was his dream to drive the car in racing’s greatest event: the Indianapolis 500. But Wiggins was denied entry because of his skin color.
In 1934, driver Bill Cummings hired Wiggins to tune his car for the Indy 500. Road & Truck states that Wiggins posed as a janitor in order to elude Jim Crow laws. Thanks to Wiggins, Cummings won the Indianapolis 500 and set a track record.
Linda Cash: Vice President of Quality and New Model Launch Programs at Ford Motor Co. After graduating and setting her sights on a job at Harnischfeger, Linda landed a role at Ford in Detroit and fell in love with the automotive industry. 36 years later, she’s moved up at Ford and now holds the title as Vice President of Quality and New Model Launch Programs. Linda is walking proof that women of any color are able to achieve whatever goals they put their mind to.
Wendell Scott | 1921–1990
Wendell Scott, was a trailblazer in automotive history and a catalyst for African American drivers in NASCAR races. Born in Danville, Virginia, Scott learned to be an auto mechanic from his father. He opened a shop after serving in the Army during World War II. At that time, African Americans were not allowed to race in NASCAR, so Scott raced in the Dixie Circuit to satisfy his need for speed. With his impressive skills on the track, Scott convinced a NASCAR steward to grant him a license—making him the first African American NASCAR licensee in history. From there, Scott would win the Jacksonville 200, becoming the first African American driver to win a NASCAR race in the top division, and then continue to compete in 495 Grand National races. To commemorate his groundbreaking achievements, Scott landed in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
McKinley Thompson Jr.: Ford’s first Black automobile designer
One day, while walking home from school in his hometown, McKinley Thompson Jr. spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow. Although he was just 12 years old at the time, Thompson’s life was forever changed. “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 won a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. His prize was a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. After school, he went to work for Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, MI. With that, Thompson made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.
One of Thompson’s first projects was contributing sketches for the Ford Mustang. His most notable contribution, however, came in 1963 when he and other Ford designers conceptualized the Ford Bronco. According to the automaker, Thompson’s work “influenced the design language that would become iconic attributes of the first-generation Bronco.
“McKinley was a man who followed his dreams and wound up making history,” said Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young. “He not only broke through the color barrier in the world of automotive design, he helped create some of the most iconic consumer products ever – from the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco – designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers.”
Over the course of history, there have been many prominent figures in the automotive industry. However, these African American heroes showed incredible bravery and persistence as they worked to drive the industry forward, overcoming racial barriers and more.
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