The little-known story of the Pattersons of Greenfield, the black family who produced cars way before Henry Ford

October 14, 2019 at 03:30 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Mohammed Awal

Mohammed Awal

October 14, 2019 at 03:30 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Courtesy of the Historical Society of Greenfield, Ohio: www.greenfieldhistoricalsociety.org

For centuries, there has been, for a lack of a better word, deliberate effort to not acknowledge the contributions of Black people in the field of science and technology.

The education system was and still being manipulated to hide the contributions and inventions of people in that field.

As a result, in the field of automobile manufacturing, for instance, people were bombarded and still being bombarded with the notion that a certain Henry Ford is the father and pioneer.

He is thought to be the first to have manufactured automobile that middle-class Americans could afford and in doing so, transformed the automobile industry “from an expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance that would profoundly impact the landscape of the 20th Century.”

But what this narrative failed to acknowledge was that Pattersons of Greenfield, Ohio, were the “real pioneers” of automobile production in the 20th Century.

They manufactured cars before the entrance of Henry Ford.

According to historical facts, Patterson-Greenfield was an early 20th-century automaker headquartered in Greenfield, Ohio, a small town roughly midway between Columbus and Cincinnati.

Founder Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on August 4, 1833, on a Virginia plantation to Charles and Nancy Patterson. It is believed that he gained freedom by crossing the Allegheny Mountains, hiking through West Virginia and crossing the Ohio River to reach Greenfield, OH, a station on the Underground Railroad.


Courtesy of the Historical Society of Greenfield, Ohio: www.greenfieldhistoricalsociety.org

He worked as a blacksmith for Dines & Simpson—a local carriage maker. It was said that he, in no time, ascended to the position of foreman, helping the company gain recognition for constructing the best products. 

Patterson, in 1873, would partner a white local carriage maker to establish J.P. Lowe & Company, which was a successful carriage maker. Patterson bought out the Lowe’s share 20 years later and continued as C.R. Patterson, Son & Company. The name change marked the drafting of his two younger sons—Samuel and Frederick. 

Patterson, per historical records, was awarded patents for the following devices; a trill coupling (#364,849) in 1887; a furniture caster (#452,940) in 1891, and a vehicle dash (#803,356) in 1905.

Clay Gordon patented a buggy top (#983,992) that was assigned to C.R. Patterson & Sons Co. (a co-partnership) in 1911 and Homer C. Reed patented a combination ladder that was assigned to F.D. Patterson in 1910. 

After the death of Charles Patterson, Frederick took over the company.

At the time Frederick took over the family business, he witnessed rapid changes in the transportation industry, fueling the need to adapt so as not to be out of business.

His response to the threat was to include automobile manufacturing to the company’s list of services.

According to a national census of manufacturers in 1890, the percentage of the black population that was involved in manufacturing was identified as a 100th of 1 per cent.

“And the majority of those were in black cosmetics or cigars,” said Christopher Nelson in the book The C.R. Patterson and Sons Company: Black Pioneers in the Vehicle Building Industry, 1865–1939.

“Actually, producing products for the mass market, the Pattersons were the only ones that I came across. That made them the largest black-owned manufacturing company in the United States,” he added.

Frederick changed the name of the company to Patterson Greenfield Automobile, as well as, launched a new vision for the company and expanded production.

It was believed the company rolled out its first automobile line in 1915 and was sold for $850. That came with a four-cylinder Continental engine and was comparable to the contemporary Ford Model T. 

Bus built for the Greenfield School District by the Patterson Company.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Greenfield, Ohio, www.greenfieldhistoricalsociety.org.

Even though there are conflicting estimates of the number of cars produced, it is strongly believed that no more than 150 vehicles were built.

The company then switched to the production of trucks, buses, and other utility vehicle bodies which were installed atop chassis made by major auto manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors. 

Its school bus bodies, in particular, became popular as Midwestern school districts began to convert from horse-drawn to internal-combustion-fired transportation by 1920.

Around 1920, the company reorganized as the Greenfield Bus Body Company but after ten years of steady growth, the Great Depression sent the company into a downward spiral. Frederick Patterson died in 1932, and the company began to disintegrate in the late 1930s.

Around 1938, the company moved to Gallipolis, Ohio, changing its name again to the Gallia Body Company in an attempt to restart its prior success. The attempt failed and the company permanently closed its doors in 1939. 

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