It’s Black History Month and a time we set aside to recognize the many achievements of Black Americans and their significant role in U.S. history. Of course, February is but a launchpad for continued education and appreciation, especially as the list of great minds grows with each passing day. As a place to start, we’d like to celebrate the names and accomplishments of three African American trailblazers within the automotive industry.
Maybe they’re names you’ve heard or read about before, and rightfully so! If you’ve ever purchased, driven or so much as ogled at the likes of your “dream vehicle,” the contributions of the men listed below are impacting you still today. And while their names have been etched into automotive history, they’re certainly worth knowing and sharing any day of the week.
The first African American automotive designer
Most notably known as the first African American automotive designer in America, McKinley Thompson Jr. played a role in “penning” the first-generation Ford Bronco and several other iconic Ford vehicle bodies. The Queens native was employed by Ford Motor Company in 1956 after earning a degree in transportation design from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Ca.1 He would leave a legendary mark on the automotive industry by working on design projects like the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and aforementioned Bronco.
Multiple iterations of the vehicles listed above have since been produced, driven, rebuilt and loved by people all over the world. Heck, last year’s release of the highly anticipated 2021 Ford Bronco left drivers everywhere yearning for a spot on the distribution list. And the Ford Mustang Mach-E continues to shape how we embrace the open road. But we don’t have to tell you that – you see it and sell it every day.
Homer B. Roberts
The first African American auto dealer
In an article we produced last year, we took some time to dive into the rich history of Homer B. Roberts – America’s first African American auto dealership owner. A highly accomplished man, Roberts was born in 1888. He studied electrical engineering, graduated college and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War I. It was only a year after the war ended that he began selling cars in Kansas City, Kan., in 19192, but his story doesn’t end there.
Roberts’ “Motor Mart” successfully sold Hupmobiles and other domestic models, most to Black Americans, and he moved to Chicago in 1929 to open the Roberts-Campbell dealership in the Grand Hotel. He later went on to serve in World War II and at the Pentagon. His legacy is still marked in Kansas City by the brick and mortar of his very first dealership, now known as The Roberts Building.
Inventor of the three-light traffic signal
Put simply, Garrett Morgan is one of the reasons roadway safety was able to keep up with such rapid development of the automobile. Like many inventors before and after his time, Morgan took something that adequately existed and made it irreversibly better – the traffic signal.
By the time of the early 1900s, Morgan had already improved mechanisms such as the sewing machine and created a refining hair cream that became wildly successful. By the start of World War I, Morgan patented a breathing device that would become the prototype for protective masks used to keep soldiers from breathing in toxic gas used in warfare3. Morgan’s focus on problem-solving for the greater good later drove him to create a traffic signal with a warning light in 1923, the rights of which he ended up selling to General Electric.
Not only do we all use the three-signal traffic light to keep ourselves and others safe on the roads still today, but it’s also quite possibly one of the most universal safety markers of roadways worldwide. Now, every time you’re tapping your foot on the gas pedal waiting for the green light to give you right-of-way, you’ll think of Garrett Morgan.
The call for education and appreciation around the Black community, and those persons of Indigenous descent and all Persons of Color (BIPOC), is a great one. And it’s one we do our best to answer as often as possible at Exeter. Thank you for joining us in recognizing some of our industry’s greatest minds. If you’d like to continue with us on our journey this month, we invite you to read Start Where You Are, by author Chris Gardner.
Take a ride with us.
1 Ford Motor Company News Release (2020). Ford Media Center. Dearborn, Michigan. Retrieved from: https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2020/02/25/mckinley-thompson-jr-ford-african-american-designer-bronco.html.
2 Ford, S.J. (1999). Biography of Homer B. Roberts, Automobile Dealer. Missouri Valley Special Collections. Retrieved from: https://kchistory.org/islandora/object/kchistory%253A115439.
3 Biography.com Editors (2018). Garrett Morgan Biography. Biography.com. Retrieved from: https://www.biography.com/inventor/garrett-morgan.
Exeter Finance LLC is a non-prime auto finance company headquartered in Irving, Texas. The company partners with franchised and independent auto dealers throughout the country to make car ownership a reality for consumers. For more information, call our Dealer Operations Group at 1-855-4EXETER (855-439-3837).