It’s September 1915 in Greenfield, Ohio, a small city positioned on the Paint Creek between Columbus and Cincinnati. At a time of yr when summer season’s heat offers option to autumn’s chill, a change of one other kind happens in a small manufacturing unit on N. Washington St.: the primary Patterson-Greenfield Vehicle is accomplished and readied on the market. It’s a serious milestone, not simply because this car comes from a first-time automaker.
There have been greater than 1,900 car producers in the USA for the reason that Duryea Motor Wagon Firm offered its first car in Springfield, Mass. in 1896. But within the explosion of entrepreneurship that adopted, just one American automaker has been based and run by a Black particular person: C.R. Patterson & Sons of Greenfield, Ohio.
In some methods, Patterson’s destiny was typical of many small-town, small-time automotive producers—the enterprise discovered some modicum of success although by no means rose to the identical heights because the auto manufacturers we nonetheless know in 2021. But, looking back this Black-owned enterprise had fairly a run. The crew behind C.R. Patterson & Sons labored its method by way of 74 years, three generations, and a number of modifications in enterprise technique at a time of technological change and excessive prejudice, making the corporate’s story all of the extra exceptional.
Life earlier than the wheel
Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, the primary of 13 kids. Little else is thought about his life there, and the identical goes for a way he and his household gained their freedom.
However ultimately, round 1850, the Pattersons got here to settle in Greenfield, Ohio. The city was already recognized for its sturdy abolitionist sympathies due to Rev. Samuel Crothers, the founding father of the city’s First Presbyterian Church. With First Presbyterian, Crothers established considered one of Ohio’s—and the nation’s—earliest abolition societies in 1833. And earlier than lengthy, Greenfield turned a cease on the Underground Railroad, and a magnet for Black slaves in search of freedom.
Right here, the Pattersons ultimately labored as blacksmiths, a standard expert commerce for former slaves throughout a interval when occupations generally held by white people have been closed off. By 1864, Patterson had turn into profitable sufficient to woo and ultimately marry Josephine Outz of Greenfield. Six kids adopted.
Like many blacksmiths, Patterson’s profession led him to work for native carriage maker Dines & Simpson, the place he turned foreman, working side-by-side with white staff and supervising others. However Patterson needed to begin his personal enterprise. Trying again, it’s straightforward to understand that as an unattainable objective with insurmountable hurdles given the shortage of financing obtainable to aspiring Black businessmen and the final prejudice behind many insurance policies of the day.
Nonetheless, Patterson in the end partnered with J.P. Lowe, a white man, and so they established J.P. Lowe and Firm in 1873. The corporate quickly earned the identical popularity Dines & Simpson had loved for setting up high-quality merchandise. Lowe and Firm grew a wholesale enterprise supplying carriages to Cincinnati-area retailers and different regional prospects.
Because the enterprise grew, so did Patterson’s group involvement. He was a trustee of the Greenfield African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880, the place he additionally taught Sunday faculty. Patterson was additionally lively within the Cedar Grove Masonic Lodge No. 17 from 1871 by way of 1899. Patterson filed go well with in opposition to the native Board of Training when his son was denied admission to all-white highschool, a case he in the end received.
Given his excessive profile domestically, it’s no shock that by 1888, the corporate employed 10 males, in accordance with Ohio’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Report. It was a profitable partnership that lasted till 1893, when faraway occasions would change Patterson’s life.
A not nice Despair
The economic system had been enhancing as 1892 ended, a notion strengthened by a myriad of financial enterprise indicators. Sadly, there have been indicators the social gathering was ending. Month-to-month indicators, such constructing building and railroad funding, started to say no. In January, the failure of the Philadelphia and Studying Railroad, considered one of America’s largest employers, ignited panic on Wall Road, inflicting a run on banks. Needing deposits to feed the run, banks referred to as in enterprise and agricultural loans. However each sectors had turn into wildly overextended, resulting in quite a few bankruptcies, a drastic discount in America’s gold provide on which the greenback was primarily based, and a realignment of America’s political priorities.
The outcome was a four-year despair: the Panic of 1893. It was considered one of America’s worst depressions, and companies in Greenfield, Ohio weren’t immune.
“The older agency of Lowe and Patterson, as soon as intensive, dwindled by way of enterprise despair to such proportions that the formation of the current partnership was opportuned and consummated,” Patterson later recalled throughout a speech on the first assembly of the Nationwide Negro Enterprise League in 1900.
Now sole proprietor of the renamed C.R. Patterson & Sons, Patterson would quickly convey his sons into the enterprise. Based on Christopher Nelson’s historical past of the household, The C.R. Patterson and Sons Firm: Black Pioneers within the Car Constructing Business, 1865–1939, Frederick would graduate highschool as a Valedictorian, getting into Ohio State College in 1889. (He turned the primary Black participant on the Ohio State College soccer crew and served as class president in 1893.) He rapidly joined the corporate beside his brother Samuel and their father earlier than just a few years of main household occasions modified issues for Frederick. In 1899, Samuel died unexpectedly. Two years later, the youthful Patterson married Betty Estelline Postell, and the couple would have two kids who would additionally turn into a part of the Patterson & Sons firm: Frederick Jr. and Postell.
By the flip of the century, Patterson’s built-in workforce averaged some 35-to-50 staff sturdy. They produced 28 carriage fashions priced from $120 to $150 and in addition made specialty automobiles, such because the Mail Supply Buggy and the College Wagon. Nonetheless, their hottest providing was the Physician’s Buggy—hardly stunning given the corporate’s focused promoting technique. Apart from showing of their native newspaper, advertisements for Patterson buggies recurrently appeared in “The Journal of the Nationwide Medical Affiliation,” chosen Black magazines together with “Alexander’s,” and “The Disaster,” and a regional agricultural publication referred to as “The Ohio Farmer.”
Patterson didn’t take into account his store one which merely assembled components constructed by different corporations. On the identical time, Patterson & Sons was not giant sufficient to mass-produce carriages, like Studebaker had finished for many of the nineteenth Century. No, this was a customized store the place craftsmanship was adequate for the corporate to supply a two-year guarantee on its automobiles.
Amongst a few of Patterson & Sons’ particulars: The wooden used was seasoned for 3 years within the firm’s yards, with ash frames and poplar panels. Our bodies weighed as little as 30 kilos, but boasted a 600-pound payload. Shafts have been constructed from black hickory, and the wheels got here from elm and white hickory. Rubber tires could possibly be ordered to switch the metal rims generally used.
The standard of the corporate’s merchandise sustained enterprise even after the preliminary arrival of the auto. The truth is, it took a full decade into the twentieth century earlier than Patterson & Sons felt any financial impression. The yr 1910 proved to be a turning level—C.R. Patterson died. Frederick, already closely concerned with designing and constructing of their merchandise, took over administration of the agency.
In contrast to in the present day, the place there are 1.88 automobiles per family in accordance with the US Division of Transportation, at this level within the US there was one automobile for each 800 individuals; that’s up from one automobile for each 65,000 individuals eight years earlier than. Throughout that point, Patterson & Sons had already constructed up a facet enterprise of servicing cars—one thing that wasn’t uncommon within the early days of motoring. Initially, this concerned restoring paint and fabric, however ultimately the work included electrical and mechanical jobs. Frederick Patterson knew that the time had come for his carriage firm to do what so many others had already finished—construct a horseless carriage.