Black carmakers with ties to Ohio State given the green light

George Patterson in front of one of his cars

Black carmakers with ties to Ohio State given the green light at Automotive Hall of Fame

By Aaron Marshall

An automotive pioneering Black family with close ties to The Ohio State University was honored this July as C.R. and Frederick Patterson were named to the Automotive Hall of Fame during a gala event in Detroit.

The Pattersons—a father-son duo who remain the only car company to be founded and run entirely by people of color—were inducted to the Automotive Hall of Fame during a July 22nd ceremony. They manufactured the Patterson-Greenfield roadster from 1915 to 1918 before pivoting to making school buses, moving vans, cargo trucks and hearses in the 1920s and 1930s.

The son—Frederick Douglass Patterson—attended Ohio State from 1889 to 1893 and was the first Black varsity football player listed as a “substitute” on the second-ever Buckeye gridiron team in 1891. While no official color barrier was ever established, Patterson was one of only a handful of Black players to play for Ohio State over the next six decades until Woody Hayes became coach in 1951, according to Ohio State football historian Jack Park.

The Pattersons' place in automotive history can be traced to 1873 when C.R. Patterson—an escaped former slave—and a white business partner began making carriages and wagons in Greenfield, a southern Ohio town founded by abolitionist settlers. C.R. had gotten his start in the industry after working as a blacksmith for a local carriage maker.

Eventually, C.R. bought out his partner, and by the turn of the century C.R. Patterson and Sons were premier custom buggy builders with high-quality craftsmanship backed up by a two-year warranty on their 28 different carriage models, according to a March 2021 article in Ars Techina.

A national census conducted in 1890 uncovered by Christopher Nelson, the author of a book on the Patterson company, showed exactly how rare it was for a Black-owned company to be making moves in American manufacturing. “Actually producing products for the mass market, the Pattersons were the only ones that I came across,” Nelson told Car and Driver magazine for a 2019 article. “That made them the largest Black-owned manufacturing company in the United States.”

As “electric carriages” began to gain popularity, Frederick convinced his father to look toward the future, and they began working on a roadster model. In the fall of 1915, they advertised the Patterson-Greenfield Roadster equipped with a three-speed powerful motor and an electric starter, electric horn, pockets on all the doors, and a streamlined body. “In fact, a perfectly [made] car of ample proportions at a very reasonable price,” said the ad. The price was $685 to $850 depending on the options—roughly $17,000 to $22,000 in today's dollars.

While producing somewhere between 30 and 150 cars, the Pattersons quickly realized they couldn't match the manufacturing and design mass production output of Ford, General Motors, Studebaker and others. Carving out a specialized niche, the Patterson company reorganized as the Greenfield Bus Body Company and began making school buses, insulated cargo trucks, hearses, moving vans, bakery and milk trucks that were sold regionally across southern Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, according to the 2019 Car and Driver article. At one point during the late 1920s, roughly half of the school buses in Ohio were made by the company.

Along with his appearance on Ohio State's second-ever football team, Frederick was active in campus student organizations. He was the assistant business manager of Ohio State's student newspaper, The Lantern, corresponding secretary and vice president of the Horton Literary Society, and the university's class president in 1893, according to a Carmen Collection story on him. The story also notes that Frederick gave a speech in 1891 on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate William McKinley and called out Florida lawmakers for honoring late Confederate President Jefferson Davis with an annual holiday on his birthday.

Later, both of Frederick's sons—Fred Jr. and Postell—would attend Ohio State with Postell becoming one of the founding members of the Iota Psi chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity at the university in 1926, according to research done by Greenfield Historical Society.

After Fredericks's death in 1932, the third generation of Pattersons tried to keep the company going by reorganizing and moving briefly to Gallipolis. While the company closed for good in 1939, the Patterson family's achievements endure as the story of a Black family who built a thriving small business at a time of widespread racism and prejudice.