Leading the Way

 Leading the Way

Charles Richard Patterson was a pioneer among African-American businessmen.

By Leo Deluca

On the north end of the Dayton Sales building at Carillon Historical Park sits a historic buggy—its weathered leather seat, bright red wheels and rugged frame showcased front and center. At first glance it appears just another relic from a bygone era, but its full story is far from ordinary.

Manufactured in 1902 in Greenfield, Ohio, the buggy was built by C.R. Patterson & Sons, a company the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture & History claims “was, and remains to this day, the only African-American owned and operated automobile company.”

Founded by Charles Richard Patterson, a former slave, C.R. Patterson & Sons grew to prominence—despite the odds—due to Patterson’s raw talent.

“A blacksmith by trade, Patterson could fashion almost any gadget of metal with his hammer and anvil … he could build anything that rolled on wheels,” wrote the The Pittsburgh Courier in its Dec. 18, 1965, edition in a story highlighting Patterson’s then 87-year-old daughter, Katie.

Born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, Patterson eventually arrived in Greenfield, Ohio, an area known for its abolitionist ties. Here in Highland County, southeast of Dayton, Patterson and his father became the village carriage smiths.

In 1864, during the waning years of the Civil War, he married Josephine Guts, and the couple had five children: Mary, Frederick Douglass, Dorothea, Samuel Claude and Katie. Nine years later, in 1873, his trailblazing career began when he entered business alongside two Caucasian partners, J.P. Lowe and Charles Grassley.

Known as Lowe, Grassley, and Patterson, the firm flourished. And since Lowe and Grassley had no children Charles and his two sons, Fred and Sam, eventually took control of the business.

But Charles never got to see his company make history. He died on April 26, 1910, age 77, five years before his son, Fred, the first African-American graduate of Greenfield High School, traded in buggies for automobiles. It was a necessary move. In 1916, for the very first time, more than one million motorcars were produced in a single year in the United States.

Fred Patterson’s son, Postell, was highlighted in the March 21, 1976, edition of the Dayton Daily News: “Postell Patterson’s 69 years melt from his face as he reminisces about his family’s contributions to automotive history, the Patterson-Greenfield car, which he calls ‘the only automobile manufactured by blacks.’”

After renovating one of the old C.R. Patterson & Sons buildings, Fred acquired the machinery needed to manufacture roadsters, touring cars, truck bodies, vans and buses. According to Postell, “Patterson-built buses were the first to carry passengers through the streets of Cincinnati.”

But as the Great Depression came to a close so did C.R. Patterson & Sons. “Detroit just got to be too much for us. We just couldn’t compete,” said Postell. While the company shuttered in 1939 its significance lives on in the annals of American history: C.R. Patterson & Sons, another in a long line of Dayton area luminaries.