Detroit – CR Patterson, Frederick Patterson and Charlie Wiggins were the first automotive entrepreneurs, innovators and champions who had a profound impact on the industry, even though they had to break down racial barriers to do so.
On Thursday, they will be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, one of the highest honors in an industry that during their lifetimes largely shunned their contributions because they were black.
The event, scheduled for 6 p.m. at The Icon on Walker Street, will also honor the 2020 Dearborn Hall of Fame inductees and recipients. Last year’s ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the lifting of capacity restrictions, the ceremony is expected to attract hundreds of participants from around the world.
The 2020/2021 class represents the most diverse in the Hall of Fame in terms of geographic, gender, racial and industrial representation, according to officials. This milestone follows an intentional effort over the past few years to improve diversity and inclusion, both in the onboarding process and in the organization’s educational programs.
“We’ve spent the last few years really looking at our process on how we’ve been inducted in the past and how we’re moving forward, and that has helped us drive that,” said Ramzi Hermiz, president of the Temple. of fame.
In total, the ceremony will reward 16 people with four different prizes.
Previously announced inductees include Mong-Koo Chung, Honorary Chairman of the Hyundai Group; Tom Gallagher, former president and chairman of Genuine Parts Corp .; comedian, former late-night host and car enthusiast Jay Leno; and Helene Rother, pioneering automotive interior designer.
Among the inductees in 2021 are Charles Richard (or CR) Patterson and his son, Frederick Douglass Patterson. The father-son team started by building cars, then morphed into cars, then buses and trucks. Their company was the first and only black-owned and operated automaker in North America, according to Hall.
CR was born in Virginia in 1833, the oldest of 13 children, according to his Automotive Hall of Fame biography. Hall researchers couldn’t determine for sure if he was born into slavery, but they believe it is likely.
CR’s parents moved to Ohio in the early 1840s. They settled in Greenfield, a community with a strong abolitionist presence that was a stage of the Underground Railroad.
In 1873, CR teamed up with a local businessman, JP Lowe, to run a car design company. In 1893, he bought Lowe’s stake and renamed the company CR Patterson & Sons. The company, according to Hall, was known for its high quality and for having an integrated workforce at a time when this was not common.
Frederick, CR’s eldest son, left a teaching post in Kentucky to help his father run the business. In the midst of the launch of mainstream automobiles, he convinced his father to add auto repair and maintenance.
Frederick, born in 1871, graduated from his local high school after his father pursued and obtained Frederick’s right to attend. Frederick then attended Ohio State University, where he was the school’s first black soccer player.
After CR’s death in 1910 at the age of 77, Frederick took over the business. He put more emphasis on auto repair, creating a customer base for these services. Under his leadership, CR Patterson & Sons sold its first automobile in 1915. The Patterson-Greenfield, as the car was called, was priced at $ 850.
Despite attempts to keep pace in an industry transformed by Henry Ford’s assembly line innovations, the company struggled and eventually shifted to building transport buses and trucks.
In an era of segregation, Frederick employed white men in his factory and often sent white employees to interact with customers to avoid racist prejudice.
He died in 1932 at the age of 60. His business closed in 1939 amid the fallout from the Great Depression.
“King of speed”
Famous driver, engineer, designer and mechanic Charlie Wiggins, a black man who was not allowed to participate in exclusively white motorsport, nonetheless became one of the greatest racing champions of his generation.
Wiggins was born in Evansville, Indiana in 1897, according to his Automotive Hall of Fame biography.
He first learned how to diagnose vehicle problems while working shining shoes outside an auto repair shop in his hometown. He then worked as an assistant mechanic and was then promoted to shop management.
Wiggins eventually moved to Indianapolis, where he went to work in an auto body repair shop that he later bought.
In 1920 he designed a racing car in hopes of competing in the Indianapolis 500, but was rejected due to his racial identity.
Instead, he helped start the Colored Speedway Association, which held its first Gold and Glory competition at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on July 4, 1924. The event drew a box office audience closed to 12,000 people. Wiggins won it four times between 1924 and 1936.
Wiggins, a gifted engineer and mechanic who built his own race cars, also helped design the 1934 Indy 500 winning car, but was not allowed to stand in Victory Lane with his teammates.
Although his racing career ended in 1936 after being injured in an accident, Wiggins “spent the rest of his life supporting and encouraging young black racers to compete at the highest level,” according to the Hall of Fame. .
He died at the age of 82 in 1979.
“Talk about a man who was so talented,” Hermiz said. “This is really where we spend our time on research. These are stories… that wouldn’t have made the press.”
Digging into the history of black industry leaders who faced racism and segregation in their day makes the search process more difficult, Hall of Fame officials said, because the white press failed to identify them. not covered.
In these cases, researchers rely on information passed down from generation to generation. In addition to its own historian, the organization works with outside historians, industry leaders, authors, archives, academics, and surviving relatives. The process of finding inductees often takes years.
The Hall of Fame was able to reunite with relatives of the Pattersons and Wiggins, with some expected to attend Thursday’s ceremony.
“They hold the legacy of their families,” said Sarah Cook, Hall of Fame president. “They did the research on their own. They have family papers and correspondence which is just a treasure trove of information.”
“More than car racing”
Wiggins’ story is so remarkable that it is being turned into a feature film dubbed “Eraced”, with legendary former General Motors Co. design chief Ed Welburn as producer.
Welburn, himself a Hall of Fame inductee who went on to become the highest ranked African American in the auto industry, first learned of Wiggins’ story in 2006 while attending the Indy 500. and watched a Wiggins documentary going on.
“I’ve been following automobiles and auto racing my whole life, from childhood,” Welburn said in an interview. “I thought I knew everything about it, and I didn’t know anything about this (Wiggins) race in it until I saw this documentary. I was stunned.
In producing “Eraced”, which aims to start filming next spring, Welburn’s goal is to draw attention to a figure who, despite his accomplishments, remains unknown to many in automotive and automotive circles. the race. He hopes others will take inspiration from Wiggins’ story.
“It’s much more than a car racing story, although car racing is at the heart,” Welburn said. “Her life story is very important, and I just want to share it with the world.”