port of harlem magazine
Theo Hodge, Jr. M.D.
The First Black Autos
February – April 2008
Praising the Past

fred patterson

n November 2020, Port Of Harlem will celebrate 25 years of publication. As we count down to our birthday, we will republish some of our most popular articles from our print issues. Thanks for subscribing and inviting others to join you in supporting our inclusive, diverse, pan-African publication - - now completely online. We originally published this article in the February - April 2008 print issue.
Henry A. May nearly fell off his chair when he processed the words that came out of his mother’s mouth. “Here was my mother, in 1980, telling me about a family member who made automobiles in the early 1900s,” recounts May in “First Black Autos.” The family member of whom May’s mother spoke was Charles Richard “C.R.” Patterson, founder of the C.R. Patterson and Sons Company of Greenfield, Ohio. A runaway slave with no formal education, C.R. created the first and only documented Black-owned and operated automobile manufacturer in the world.

C.R. was born on a Virginia plantation in April 1833. He assisted the plantation’s blacksmith for 15 years, was adept at shoeing horses, and “Could fix plows, wagons, and buggies.” When he turned 28, C.R. packed a few clothes, some food, and his tools and escaped slavery. After weeks of lurking in forests, trudging through streams, and dodging bounty hunters, C.R. swam across the frigid Ohio River to freedom.

When C.R. reached Greenfield, in 1862, he went to work for a local carriage and coach company, and was soon promoted to shop foreman. When word came of President Lincoln’s abolishment of slavery, Patterson was elated. He had long endured the life of a modern day illegal immigrant, but now he was liberated of the stigma and fear of being a wanted person.

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