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Frederick Douglas Patterson (born 1871-1932) was an American entrepreneur, the first black American to manufacture cars, and known for the Greenfield-Patterson automobile of 1915, built in Ohio. He later converted his business to the Greenfield Bus Body Company.
While in college at Ohio State University, he was the first African American to play on its football team. He returned to Greenfield to join his father in his carriage business, which became C.R. Patterson and Sons. The younger man saw opportunity in the new horseless carriages, and converted the company in the early 1900s to manufacture automobiles, making 150 of them. Later he shifted to making buses and trucks, and renamed his company as Greenfield Bus Body Company. After Patterson's death in 1932, his son kept the business going through much of the Great Depression, finally closing it in 1939.
Early life and education
Named after the noted abolitionist, Frederick Douglas Patterson was born in 1871 as the youngest of four children of Josephine Utz (aka Outz) and Charles Richard Patterson. He had an older brother Samuel. Their father was an ex-slave who had escaped to Greenfield, Ohio from Virginia shortly before the American Civil War.
After getting established as a blacksmith in town, Charles had married Josephine Utz, a young local white woman. By the time Frederick was born, his father had a successful carriage business with a partner. The Pattersons encouraged the education of their children: Samuel, two daughters, and Frederick.
Frederick graduated from the old Greenfield High School in 1888 and went on to Ohio State University. While at the university, he played on the football team in his junior year in 1891, the first African American to do so. He withdrew from college in his senior year before graduating, taking a job as a high school history teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a different career than his father's business, where his older brother was already working.
Marriage and family
Patterson married and had a family, including a son Postell Patterson.
In 1897, Charles became ill. By this time, Samuel had died. Frederick resigned his teaching position to return and help operate the family business. His father renamed it C.R. Patterson and Sons, and the younger man took on an increasing role.
Greenfield Bus Body Company
After his father died in 1910, Frederick D. Patterson took over the business. Seeing the rise of "horseless carriages", he started development of the first Patterson-Greenfield car, completed in 1915. His two styles competed with Henry Ford's model T and sold for about $850. He was the first African American to own and operate a car manufacturing company.
After producing about 150 vehicles, and having difficulty getting financing for expansion, Patterson decided to change his business rather than compete head on with the major Detroit industry. He built bodies for trucks and buses set upon a chassis made by Ford or GM. In 1920, he changed the name of his company to Greenfield Bus Body Company. He built strong business relationships with numerous school districts, which became steady customers.
The Crash and Great Depression had a devastating effect on his company, as widespread financial problems caused his customers to cut back on bus orders. Patterson died in 1932. His son Postell Patterson, who had worked with him, closed the business in 1939.
Politics, religion and business
Patterson was a Methodist. At a time of a rise in fraternal organizations, he joined the Freemasons, where he rose to the level of Worshipful Master of the Greenfield Cedar Grove Masonic Lodge#17. Patterson also joined The Third Wind Foraker club. He became 2nd vice-president of the National Negro Business League during Booker T. Washington's term as leader.
Patterson joined the Republican Party and served as a Greenfield's annual delegate to the Ohio Republican Party caucus. As a delegate and an African-American businessman, he was important to the Warren G. Harding 1920 campaign in turning out the Ohio black vote. For his work in the 1920 election, he was rewarded with a position as alternate delegate to the 1924 Republican National Convention.
- Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-breaking and Pioneering Historical Events, edited by Jessie Carney Smith (1994); 2nd edition, Visible Ink Press, 2003, pp. 78-79
- Reginald Larrie, Black History Feature: "He Was Owner of an Auto Factory", Baltimore Afro-American, 8 August 1980, accessed 5 May 2013
- Mark Theobald (2004). "C.R. Patterson; Greenfield Bus Body Co.". Coachbuilt.