BLACK HISTORY MONTH: BLACK PIONEERS WHO CHANGED THE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY
October is Black History Month.
We want to raise awareness of all the black pioneers who helped shape the automotive industry over the years and that unfortunately have not always been given due credit.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was born into slavery on a Missouri farm in 1865.
During World War I, Carver invented hundreds of industrial products from agricultural raw materials.
He was a close friend of Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company, with who he collaborated on several agricultural and industrial projects.
World War II created shortages of raw materials, including rubber. Carver, using his extensive knowledge of botany, created a synthetic rubber made from sweet potatoes. The innovation of synthetic rubber was an important one for the automotive industry. Today, more than two-thirds of rubber used for manufacturing is created synthetically, rather than harvested organically.
Morgan was the owner of a successful garment shop and Black newspaper in Cleveland, and earned enough money to own a vehicle at a time when many people were still using bicycles, horses and carriages.
He noticed that the streets were crowded with various forms of transportation, and the traffic signals were primitive, simply displaying the words “Stop” or “Go” and since these signals didn’t notify drivers to slow down before the “Stop” signal, accidents were common. This mayhem inspired Morgan to invent the interim “All Hold” cue, the predecessor of today’s yellow light.
Morgan won a patent for his invention, a T-shaped pole with three settings: “Stop,” “All Hold” and “Go.” General Electric then bought the rights to his invention for $40,000. Today, the iconic red, yellow and green traffic light is an integral part of the driving experience.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones was born in 1893, nearly 20 years before refrigerators were commonplace in the United States. He started out as an automotive mechanic.
During the Second World War, Jones created and patended technology to refrigerate freight trucks. This technology was revolutionary, as it allowed large trucks to transport perishable goods over long distances. The technology was then used in boats, trains and planes, which increased the availability of food worldwide. People were no longer bound by eating only local and in-season foods. Thanks to refrigerated transportation, food from all over the world could be transported without spoiling.
This technology became one of the cornerstones of the commercial driving and freight industries.
Frederick Jones’ was the first Black man elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.
Edward Davis, following his love for automobiles, opened his own repair shop in Detroit.
One of his regular customers just happened to be a plant supervisor. Confident in his skills, he offered Davis a job at the Dodge Hamtramck assembly facility.
Davis struck out on his own in 1938 and soon joined forces with Studebaker to sell their cars. Studebaker filed for bankruptcy soon afterward, but Davis remained optimistic, aiming for a franchise from one of the Big 3 (GM, Ford, and Chrysler). For many years, they denied him simply due to the colour of his skin. But finally, in 1963, Davis opened a Chrysler/Plymouth dealership in Detroit, becoming the first African American to own a new car dealership. In 1996, Davis also became the first African American to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Edward Welburn, after becoming infatuated with a Cadillac he saw at the Philadelphia Auto Show when he was 11, he wrote to General Motors about becoming a car designer. Years later, GM gave Welburn an internship, and he stayed at GM through his entire 44-year career in the industry.
As GM’s Vice President of Global Design from 2003 to 2016, Welburn oversaw the development of some of GM’s most iconic vehicles, including the Corvette and Camaro. He also took part in the development of the Cadillac Escalade, which is fitting because it was a Cadillac that caught his interest in the automotive industry in the first place.
Sir Lewis Hamilton
No list of racing drivers of colour would be complete without Sir Lewis Hamilton, the only such Formula 1 driver to date.
At the time of writing, Hamilton has won a joint-record seven World Drivers’ Championship titles (tied with the great Michael Schumacher) and holds the records for the most wins (103), pole positions (103), and podium finishes (182), proving that he’s a world-class racing driver in his own right.
Hamilton took over Schumacher’s seat at Mercedes in 2012, where he has remained ever since and dominated the field. Hamilton won four world championships in a row between 2017 and 2020 and was denied a fifth in a highly controversial conclusion to the final race of the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi. Controversy aside, no one can deny that Hamilton is one of the top racing drivers of modern times.