Museum features African-American automotive pioneers

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Part of the African-American auto pioneers exhibit at the AACA Museum | Jed Rapoport photo
Part of the African-American auto pioneers exhibit at the AACA Museum | Jed Rapoport photo
Part of the African-American auto pioneers exhibit at the AACA Museum | Jed Rapoport photo

George Washington Carver, the famed African-American scientist and inventor, is best known for creating over 100 products derived from peanuts. But did you know he also applied his skills to the production of automobiles?

Carver collaborated with Henry Ford in the 1930s on the development and use of soy beans to produce a fiberglass-like material for car bodies. Ford built some cars using the process, though the effort never reached full production levels.

Such fascinating information about Carver and his connection the automobile is just one of many made in “Pioneers in African-American Automotive History,” an exhibit at the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

George Washington Carver and Henry Ford | AACA photos
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford | AACA photos

The exhibit is the culmination of years of research by Rochelle Coslow-Robinson, the museum’s exhibit programs director. Robinson said that while there are few African-Americans who can be directly connected to the automobile and its development, the fact that any can be located, particularly from the earliest days of the industry, is because of the work of Henry Edwin Baker Jr.

Baker was the third African-American to be enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy. After completing his law degree, he went to work for the U.S. Patent Office, rising to second assistant examiner by 1902. In 1901, Baker had assembled a list of all African-Americans who applied for patents up to that time. It was this list and his subsequent updates that provided the basis for Robinson’s research in support of the AACA exhibit.

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Patent papers: Jack Johnson's wrench
Patent papers: Jack Johnson’s wrench

Only one car company has been documented to have been founded and owned by African-Americans, the Patterson-Greenfield Automobile Company in Greenfield, Ohio. Frederick Patterson produced a car similar to and a direct competitor of the Ford Model T between approximately 1915 and 1918. It is unclear how many cars were produced and none are known to survive today.

Patent papers for Morgan's traffic signal
Patent papers for Morgan’s traffic signal

Other notable inventors highlighted in the exhibit include:

  • Edmond Berger, who is widely believed by historians to have invented the spark plug in February, 1839 but never patented his invention.
  • John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) who invented a type of adjustable wrench, which was patented in 1922. Johnson had an affinity for high-performance automobiles. He famously challenged race car driver Barney Oldfield to a match race on the 1-mile oval at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn , New York, where Oldfield proved once and for all that Johnson was a better boxer than race car driver.
  • Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr. was not only the first African-American to own an automobile in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, but he also invented a type of traffic signal. Traffic signals first appeared on American roads in 1913. Early signals utilized mechanical signaling as opposed to electric lights. Morgan’s 1923 patented signal introduced a third position beyond “stop” and “go” to better regulate cross traffic.
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Rochelle Coslow-Robinson’s enthusiasm and appreciation of history was key to bringing the exhibit into existence. She promised it will be a subject that the museum will revisit in expanded form in the future.

The exhibit opened on February 1 and runs through April 30.

For more information, visit the museum’s website.

 

 

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Jed's father's life long passion for old cars was passed to him, and at the tender age of three weeks he attended his first car show, the AACA Fall National meet in Hershey. Jed is an MC at the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance and judge at several other events. Jed has authored several books on cars and collecting and is considered an authority on the subject of Smith and Briggs & Stratton motor wheels and the vehicles they powered.