Charles Richard Patterson may not be a household name in transportation history, but he and his son Frederick successfully carved out an important place for themselves at the dawn of the automobile age. We take a look at how these automotive pioneers left their mark on both American and black history.
C.R. Patterson was born a slave in Virginia in 1833. Years later, according to the African American Registry, he escaped, traveling over the Allegheny Mountains, through West Virginia and across the Ohio River. He settled in Greenfield, Ohio, a town with strong abolitionist sympathies and a station on the Underground Railroad.
Once in Ohio, Patterson learned blacksmithing skills and went to work for a carriage-making business. In 1873, he formed a business partnership with another local carriage manufacturer named J.P. Lowe. For the next 20 years, the duo ran a successful business making expertly crafted horse-drawn carriages.
In 1893, Patterson bought out Lowe and became the sole proprietor of the newly renamed C.R. Patterson & Sons. When he died in 1910, Patterson passed the flourishing business to his son Frederick. The younger Patterson was already a pioneer, becoming the first African American to play football for Ohio State University.
The change of hands occurred just has the transportation business was being revolutionized. Frederick began noticing more and more “horseless carriages” on the roads and knew that automobiles were the future. C.R. Patterson & Sons produced its first car in 1915. Known as the Patterson-Greenfield automobile, it sold for $850.
More orders came in and Patterson & Sons established itself as legitimate auto manufacturer. According to the Historic Vehicle Association, the Patterson-Greenfield model was comparable in quality and workmanship to the Ford Model T. However, the Ohio company couldn’t match Ford’s manufacturing capability. In the 1920s, after producing approximately 150 cars, Patterson & Sons switched to the production of trucks, buses and other commercial vehicle bodies, which were installed on top of chassis made by major auto manufacturers.
Hit hard by the Great Depression, coupled with Frederick’s death in 1932, the company began to spiral downward. It closed in 1939. There are no known Patterson-Greenfield automobiles in existence today, but several C.R. Patterson & Sons Company carriages have survived. The National Museum of African American History & Culture states that Patterson & Sons remains the only African American-owned automobile company in United States history.