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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

C.R. Patterson & Sons: America’s First and Only Black-Owned Car, Truck, and Bus Manufacturing Company

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on March 3, 2024


Charles Richard (C.R.) Patterson (1833-1910). was an American entrepreneur who started the C.R. Patterson & Sons carriage company in 1893 in Greenfield, Ohio.  Patterson & Sons grew to be the first and only black-owned and operated automobile company on the continent (from 1893-1939).

 

C.R. Patterson was born into slavery as the youngest of 13 children. His enslaved parents escaped from Virginia to abolition-sympathetic Greenfield, Ohio in the early 1840s.

 

Patterson was a local preacher in Greenfield and an abolitionist who preached equal rights and opportunities for Black Americans. Patterson was also influenced by the American abolitionist and social reformer, Frederick Douglass.  He named his oldest son in honor of Douglass.

In 1873, Patterson partnered up with local businessman, J.P. Lowe, to run a carriage design firm in Greenfield.  In 1893, Patterson purchased Lowe’s share of the company and renamed it C.R. Patterson & Sons. Patterson intended to run the business with his youngest son Samuel C. Patterson, who passed away unexpectedly from illness at age 23.

 

Patterson's oldest son, Frederick Douglas Patterson (1871-1932), who was college educated, left his teaching position in Louisville, Kentucky to help his father run the company. Frederick took the reins of the company in 1910 after C.R. Patterson passed away.


By the time Frederick Patterson took over, the company had already added automotive repair and service, as he had convinced his father that automobiles were the future.

 

C.R. Patterson was always financially savvy and died one of the richest people in Greenfield, Ohio, leaving the company he built to his son, Frederick Douglass Patterson.


Their first automobile, the Patterson-Greenfield, rolled out on September 23, 1915 and sold for $850. It was advertised to be of higher quality than the Ford Model T. The vehicles had a forty horsepower Continental four-cylinder engine and a top speed of 50 miles per hour.


Frederick said of the Patterson-Greenfield Automobile: “It is not intended for a large car. It is designed to take the place originally held by the family surrey.  It is a 5-passenger vehicle, ample and luxurious.”


The Company offered several models of coupes and sedans including a state-of-the-art 4-cylinder 30 hp Continental “Red Devil” speedster (as depicted below).



C.R. Patterson & Sons was well respected and saw considerable success in the early years.


Without the financial ability to expand on a large scale, the company built an estimated 150 custom-made cars between 1915 and 1918, which were primarily sold to local and regional customers.


Frederick Patterson struggled to break into the automotive sector as a large-scale manufacturer because the industry was monopolized by Henry Ford and his mass produced, less-expensive options. Despite Ford's advantage, Frederick kept at it and designed and deployed his own assembly line technique to increase output.


Unable to compete with Ford’s monopoly on recreational cars, Patterson moved into commercial vehicles in 1921, producing buses and transport trucks. The company was renamed Greenfield Bus Body Company.



Frederick, who died on January 18, 1932, never revealed his face to his customers, often sending a white proxy in his place to avoid customers’ prejudice.


Due to the crippling effects of the Great Depression, this Black-owned, independent automotive vehicle manufacturer was ultimately forced to close production in 1939.

 

Both C.R. Patterson and Frederick Douglas Patterson are 2020/2021 inductees in the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit.

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