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Black History: Special Delivery!!

Date

July 31, 2015

Charlie Wiggins: Pioneer of Race Car Driving

Black History:  Special Delivery!!

Charlie Wiggins

Charlie Wiggins was born in 1897 in Evansville, Indiana.  He spent his youth shining shoes on  in front of a car repair shop.   Eventually he was given a job in the garage. He eventually became an apprentice.   In 1917, he became chief mechanic.

After moving to Indianapolis in 1922, Wiggins started his own garage and began building his own racecar with salvaged junkyard parts. He wanted to race in the Indianapolis 500 in the car he dubbed “the Wiggins Special,” but the color of his skin made him ineligible to compete.

Wiggins and other African-American drivers decided to form their own racing league, “Gold and Glory Sweepstakes”, an annual 100-mile race for black drivers on a one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The first race, in 1924, drew a crowd of 12,000 and was the largest sporting event held for African Americans up to that point. Over the next 10 years,  Wiggins would win three Gold and Glory Sweepstake championships. His notoriety as a mechanic and racer and his bold actions against segregation in auto racing caused the KKK to target him.

During the 1936 running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, Wiggins lost a leg in a 13-car crash. He made himself a wooden leg and for the next 40 years continued to build and repair  built cars while training  other drivers and mechanics. He also continued to advocate for African-American participation in motor racing until his death in Indianapolis in 1979 at the age of 82.

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C.R. Patterson Auto Company; 1st Black Owned Auto Company

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Frederick Patterson

Born into slavery on a West Virginia plantation in April 1833, C.R. Patterson escaped to Ohio in 1862.  Patterson obtained employment as a blacksmith for the Greenfield carriage-building business Dines and Simpson. Patterson eventually partnered with J.P. Lowe, a local carriage manufacturer who happened to be white.

When Lowe died, Patterson took over the business and renamed it the “C.R. Patterson & Sons Company.” Patterson sold 28 types of horse-drawn vehicles and employed over a dozen workers. Before his death in 1910, he experimented with the manufacture of gas-powered “horseless carriages.” The C.R. Patterson Auto Company is believed to be the first and only African American owned and founded auto company.

Patterson’s son, Frederick, transitioned the company over to auto manufacturing with the development and debut of the Patterson-Greenfield car in 1915. Selling price was $850.  It featured a four-cylinder Continental engine and was comparable to the contemporary Ford Model T.  Estimates of  the Patterson-Greenfield car production vary.   It is likely that no more than 150 vehicles were built.

Unable to compete with Ford’s manufacturing capability, C.R. Patterson & Sons began production of truck, bus and other utility vehicle bodies installed on chassis from major auto manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors. The company’s school bus bodies became sought after as Midwestern school districts began to move from horse-drawn to internal-combustion-fired transportation by 1920.  Around 1920, the company reorganized as the Greenfield Bus Body Company but the Great Depression resulted in the decline of the company. The company closed its doors in 1939.

While no Patterson-Greenfield automobiles are known to have survived, rare examples of C.R. Patterson & Sons carriages and buggies can still be found in museums across the Midwest.

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