September 23 – Patterson-Greenfield's First Automobile

Posted on September 23, 2016

This photo's caption is wrong and wrong!
I was pretty excited to see the headline “C.R. Patterson, Born Slave, Built Automobiles Before Henry Ford.”

I thought to myself, “Wow, I sure didn't know about THIS!” And I eagerly read to discover how, when, and where Charles Rich Patterson, formerly enslaved person, built motorized cars even before Henry Ford. 

But that very article – the hundreds of words after the headline – contradicted the headline in two ways:

  1. It turns out that it wasn't C.R. (Charles Rich) Patterson who built autos, but his son Fred, who was never enslaved.
  2. The first Patterson-Greenfield auto rolled off the assembly line on this date in 1915, and Henry Ford's Model T made its debut in 1908.

You know what? I think the actual story is super rad. Why-oh-why was there an inaccurate headline that makes the whole article suspect?

Here's the super rad truth:

Shortly before the Civil War, C.R. Patterson escaped from slavery on his own two feet, found his way to Ohio, and got a job working at a carriage company. He used his blacksmithing skills to get the job, but he must have had some leadership skills, too, because he rose up from worker to foreman.

By 1873, Patterson started his own carriage building business along with J.P. Lowe, a white carriage maker.

When Lowe died (a decade later), Patterson found himself sole owner of a carriage company – one of the few black-owned businesses in transportation. He built 28 different horse-drawn vehicles – everything from surreys and phaetons to doctor's buggies.

Patterson's two sons could at that point help out with the work, so the company became C.R. Patterson and Son Carriage Company. Sam ended up being the “Son” in the title; Fred became the first black person to graduate from Greenfield's high school and then the first black football player at Ohio State and then a history teacher in Kentucky.

But Sam died in 1889, and C.R. became sick the following decade. So Fred rejoined his father's company and began to take more and more leadership.

One thing he noticed at the turn of the century (the early 1900s) was that horse-drawn carriages and buggies were a dying industry as more and more people began to use automobiles and other self-powered vehicles. It was Fred that began tinkering with motor-driven vehicles. C.R. died in 1910, and not too long after that Fred began to test his first designs, a Greenfield touring car and a roadster.

It was Fred Patterson who became the first African American to own an auto company.

Fred Patterson, son of a former slave, who began
manufacturing cars a bit after Ford started doing so.

It was difficult for Patterson's designs to compete with Henry Ford's Model T – whether because Ford had a head start, because he was white and could more easily getting funding, or a combination of the two. Fred Patterson decided not to go head-to-head with Ford, and he began building bodies for trucks and buses set upon a chassis made by Ford or GM. By 1920 he had changed the name of the company to Greenfield Bus Body Company. He nurtured the relationships with many different school districts and, until the Crash and the Great Depression, he had a steady income from returning customers who wanted more and more buses.

I checked these details with multiple sources, and this account seems to be true (although some of the dates and details are a sort of best-guess history). Like I said at the beginning, this doesn't match up with Ex-Slave Beat Ford in Building Early Autos – but the true story is really wonderful!

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