The life and times of C.R. Patterson & Sons, the first Black-owned US automaker

Frederick Patterson standing beside a bare Patterson-Greenfield automobile chassis, probably for a larger touring car body.

Enlarge / Frederick Patterson standing beside a bare Patterson-Greenfield automobile chassis, probably for a larger touring car body.
(credit: Courtesy of The Historical Society of Greenfield, Ohio: www.greenfieldhistoricalsociety.org)

It’s September 1915 in Greenfield, Ohio, a small town located on the Paint Creek between Columbus and Cincinnati. At a time of year when summer’s warmth gives way to autumn’s chill, a change of another sort occurs in a small factory on N. Washington St.: the first Patterson-Greenfield Automobile is completed and readied for sale. It’s a major milestone, not just because this vehicle comes from a first-time automaker.

There have been more than 1,900 automobile manufacturers in the United States since the Duryea Motor Wagon Company sold its first automobile in Springfield, Mass. in 1896. Yet in the explosion of entrepreneurship that followed, only one American automaker has been founded and run by a Black individual: C.R. Patterson & Sons of Greenfield, Ohio.

In some ways, Patterson’s fate was typical of many small-town, small-time automotive manufacturers—the business found some modicum of success though never rose to the same heights as the auto brands we still know in 2021. Yet, in retrospect this Black-owned business had quite a run. The team behind C.R. Patterson & Sons worked its way through 74 years, three generations, and multiple changes in business strategy at a time of technological change and extreme prejudice, making the company’s story all the more remarkable.

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