C.R. Patterson and Sons was the first African American-founded car company in the United States. Established in 1915, the company was a testament to the ingenuity and determination of its founders, Charles Richard Patterson and his son Frederick..
The Early Years of C.R. Patterson and Sons
Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833. He was the oldest of the thirteen children of Charles and Nancy Patterson. He moved to Greenfield, Ohio, after escaping slavery, and worked for the Dines and Simpson Carriage and Coach Makers Company, where he learned the trade of carriage building. Later, in 1873, he formed J. P. Lowe & Company with J.P. Lowe, a white man. The firm quickly gained a reputation for producing high-quality carriages, wagons, and buggies.
In 1893, twenty years after the company was founded, Charles Patterson purchased the remaining shares of J. P. Lowe & Company, and the name was changed to C.R. Patterson, Son & Company to reflect the addition of his son Samuel to the business. After Samuel C. Patterson died in 1899, his eldest son, Frederick Douglas Patterson, moved back home to help with the business.
The company’s success was due to its skilled craftsmen, many of whom were African American. C.R. Patterson and Sons provided training and employment opportunities for black people at a time when discrimination was rampant.
At its peak, the company had 50 employees and produced approximately 500 horse-drawn carriages per year.
By the early 1900s, the automobile had begun to replace the horse-drawn carriage, and the Pattersons saw an opportunity to expand their business into a new industry.
After Charles R. Patterson’s death on April 26, 1910, his son Frederick Douglas Patterson took over the carriage business and decided they needed to get into the “Patterson horseless carriage” business.
The Patterson-Greenfield Automobile
In 1915, C.R. Patterson and Sons introduced the Patterson-Greenfield automobile, the first car to be designed and built by an African American-owned company. The car was named after Greenfield, Ohio, the town where the company was based. The Patterson-Greenfield was a high-quality vehicle that featured a powerful six-cylinder engine, a roomy interior, and a stylish design. The car was marketed to African American consumers, who had few options for car ownership at the time. The first cars were sold for $685, with additional reports of the car selling for $850 (or $20,290 to $25,014 adjusted for inflation in 2023).
Despite its quality, the Patterson-Greenfield struggled to compete with larger, more established automakers. The company faced numerous challenges, including a lack of capital and discrimination from suppliers and distributors. Nevertheless, the Pattersons persevered and continued to build and repair cars until 1939, when the company permanently closed its doors.
It is estimated that they built between 30 and 150 vehicles during their active period.
The Pattersons’ contributions to the automotive industry were significant, as they demonstrated that African Americans could build and innovate in a field dominated by white-owned companies. Their success inspired other black entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams in the face of discrimination.
In addition to their business achievements, the Pattersons were also active in their community. They supported local organizations, including churches and schools, and Frederick Patterson served as the 2nd vice-president of the National Negro Business League during Booker T. Washington’s term as leader.