Automotive Hall of Fame to induct 20th century industry leaders who broke racial barriers

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Detroit — C.R. Patterson, Frederick Patterson and Charlie Wiggins were early automotive entrepreneurs, innovators and champions who made a profound impact on the industry, even as 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 from an industry that, during their lifetimes, largely shunned their contributions because they were Black.

C.R. Patterson

The event, scheduled for 6 p.m. at The Icon, on Walker Street, also will honor inductees and awardees from the Dearborn-based Hall of Fame's 2020 class. Last year's ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. With capacity restrictions lifted, the ceremony is expected to draw hundreds of attendees from around the world.

The 2020/2021 class represents the Hall of Fame's most diverse ever in terms of geographic, gender, racial and industry representation, officials say. That milestone follows an intentional effort in recent years to improve on diversity and inclusion, both in the induction process and in the organization's educational programs.

"We spent the last few years really looking at our process about how we've inducted in the past and how we're going forward, and that has helped us drive that," said Ramzi Hermiz, Hall of Fame chairman.

In all, the ceremony will recognize 16 individuals with four different awards.

The previously-announced inductees include Mong-Koo Chung, the honorary chairman of the Hyundai Group; Tom Gallagher, the former chairman and president of Genuine Parts Corp.; comedian, former late-night host and auto enthusiast Jay Leno; and trailblazing female auto interior designer Helene Rother.

Pioneering entrepreneurs

Among the 2021 inductees are Charles Richard (or C.R.) Patterson and his son, Frederick Douglass Patterson. The father-son team started out building carriages, eventually pivoted to cars, and later to buses and trucks. Their company was the first and only Black-owned and operated auto manufacturer in North America, according to the Hall.

C.R. was born in Virginia in 1833, the oldest of 13 children, according to his Automotive Hall of Fame biography. Researchers for the Hall could not definitively determine whether he was born into slavery, but they believe it's likely.

C.R.'s parents moved to Ohio in the early 1840s. They settled in Greenfield, a community with a strong abolitionist presence that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1873, C.R. partnered with a local businessman, J.P. Lowe, to run a carriage design firm. In 1893, he bought out Lowe's stake and renamed the company C.R. Patterson & Sons. The company, according to the Hall, was known for its high quality and for having an integrated workforce at a time when that was not common.

Frederick, C.R.'s oldest son, left a teaching job in Kentucky to help his father run the business. Amid the launch of mass-market automobiles, he convinced his father to add automotive repair and service.

Frederick Patterson

Frederick, born in 1871, graduated from his local high school after his father sued and won over Frederick's right to attend. Frederick went on to attend Ohio State University, where he was the school's first Black football player.

After C.R. died in 1910 at age 77, Frederick took over the company. He increased the focus on auto repair, building up a customer base for those services. Under his leadership, C.R. 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 transitioned to building buses and transport trucks. 

In a segregated era, 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 age 60. His company closed in 1939 amid the fallout from the Great Depression.

'Speed King'

Also being inducted into the Hall of Fame is celebrated driver, engineer, designer and mechanic Charlie Wiggins, a Black man who was barred from participating in white-only motorsports but 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 to diagnose problems with vehicles while he worked shining shoes in front of an auto repair shop in his hometown. He went on to work as a mechanic's assistant and later was promoted to managing the shop floor.

Wiggins eventually moved to Indianapolis, where he went to work at an auto body repair shop that he later bought. 

In 1920, he designed a race car in hopes of participating in the Indianapolis 500, but he was rejected because of his racial identity. 

Instead, he helped launch the Colored Speedway Association, which hosted its first Gold and Glory Sweepstakes at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on July 4, 1924. The event drew a sold-out audience of 12,000 people. Wiggins won it four times between 1924 and 1936.

Charlie Wiggins

Wiggins, a gifted engineer and mechanic who built his own race cars, also helped to engineer the winning car for the 1934 Indy 500, but was not permitted to stand in the Victory Lane with his fellow crew mates. 

Though his racing career ended in 1936 after he was injured in a crash, 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 age 82 in 1979.

"Talk about a man who was so talented," said Hermiz. "This is really where we're spending our time on the research. These are stories ... that wouldn't have made the press."

Digging into the histories of Black industry leaders who faced racism and segregation in their era makes the research process more difficult, Hall of Fame officials said, because the white press did not cover them.

In those cases, researchers rely on information passed down from generation to generation. In addition to its own staff historian, the organization works with outside historians, industry leaders, authors, archives, academics and surviving relatives. The research process for prospective inductees often takes years.

The Hall of Fame was able to track down relatives of the Pattersons and Wiggins, and some are expected to attend Thursday's ceremony.

"They hold their family's legacy," said Hall of Fame President Sarah Cook. "They've done research on their own. They have the family papers and correspondences that are just a treasure trove of information."

'More than auto racing'

So remarkable is Wiggins' story that it's being made into a feature film dubbed "Eraced," with legendary former General Motors Co. design chief Ed Welburn serving as a producer. 

Welburn, a Hall of Fame inductee himself who became the highest-ranking African American person in the auto industry, first learned Wiggins' story in 2006 while attending the Indy 500. He came across it by happenstance: he flipped on the television at his hotel and watched a documentary about Wiggins that was playing. 

"I have followed automobiles and auto racing all of my life, since childhood," Welburn said in an interview. "I thought I knew everything about it, and I knew nothing about that racing (Wiggins) was a part of until I saw that documentary. I was stunned by it. It drew me in in a big way."

In producing "Eraced," which aims to start shooting next spring, Welburn's goal is to draw attention to a figure who, despite his accomplishments, remains unknown to many in auto and racing circles. He hopes others will draw inspiration from Wiggins' story.

"It's much more than an auto racing story, although auto racing is at the core," said Welburn. "His life's story is a very important one, and I just want to share it with the world."

Twitter: @JGrzelewski