African-American Pioneers in Automotive & Technology

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February is Black History Month.

As a minority, women-owned business, Vayan Group honors the contributions of African-Americans by recognizing four (4) African-American pioneers that have been instrumental in changing or advancing the Automotive and Technology industries. Read on to see who we’ve highlight and be sure to do your own research to discover countless others.


C.R. Patterson

First Auto Manufacturing Company

Charles Richard Patterson was born enslaved on a Virginia plantation in 1833. Twenty eight years later, in 1861, Charles escaped the plantation and traveled to Greenfield, Ohio, to begin a new life. In 1873, he partnered with carriage manufacturer J.P. Lowe and began the successful business of manufacturing horse carriages. Charles then bought out Lowe’s shares of the business and re-established the company as C. R. Patterson and Sons in 1893, with his oldest son, Frederick, taking on more of an ownership role. In 1910, Charles Richard Patterson died and left the business to Frederick, who quickly began converting the company into an automobile manufacturer. 

The hard work of shifting the scope of the business culminated in the  introduction of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile in 1915. It was sold for $685 and featured a four-cylinder Continental engine that competed with Ford’s Model T. Although C. R. Patterson and Sons was forced to close its doors in 1939 due to the Great Depression, the National Museum of African American History & Culture states that Patterson & Sons remains the only African American-owned automobile company in United States history.


Garret Morgan

Inventor of the Three-Signal Traffic Light

Born in Kentucky in 1877, Garrett Morgan would go on to become one of the great inventors of his time. By the 1920s he already had several inventions under his belt, including an early version of the gas mask. After witnessing a terrible accident at an intersection, Morgan came up with the idea to improve the two-signal traffic light to a T-shape signal – featuring a caution signal (or yellow light). Through this invention, drivers would now be informed of signal switches, causing less abrupt stops and slowing traffic in all directions.

On November 20, 1923, Morgan was awarded a patent for a three-position traffic signal. His original traffic signal prototype is on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Aside from his technical contributions to society, Morgan was a pillar in Cleveland’s African American community. He founded the “Cleveland Call,” one of the most important African American newspapers in the country, and was a leader in the city’s NAACP chapter.


Marian Croak

Leading Developer of Voice of IP Technology

Raised in New York City, Marian Croak attended Princeton University and completed her doctoral studies at the University of Southern California in 1982, specializing in social psychology and quantitative analysis. After graduation, Croak joined AT&T Labs, serving as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. In the early 2000s, Marian Croak was credited as a developer of Voice over IP (VoIP) – creating most of the methods and features that both improved its reliability and ushered in its nearly universal adoption. 

Marian Croak holds more than two hundred patents, including more than one hundred in relation to Voice over IP. Her groundbreaking technology allows people to communicate efficiently through audio and/or video while using the internet. She also pioneered the use of phone network services to make it easy for the public to donate to crisis appeals. Croak is currently the Vice President of Engineering at Google.


McKinley Thompson Jr.

First Major Automobile Designer

One day in 1934, while walking home from school in his hometown of Queens, N.Y., McKinley Thompson Jr. spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow. Although he was just 12 years old at the time, Thompson’s life was forever changed. In the early 1950s, after serving in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, Thompson entered and won a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. His prize was a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. After school, he went to work for Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, MI. With that, Thompson made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.

One of Thompson’s first projects was contributing sketches for the Ford Mustang. His most notable contribution, however, came in 1963 when he and other Ford designers conceptualized the Ford Bronco. According to the automaker, Thompson’s work “influenced the design language that would become iconic attributes of the first-generation Bronco. “McKinley was a man who followed his dreams and wound up making history,” said Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young. “He not only broke through the color barrier in the world of automotive design, he helped create some of the most iconic consumer products ever – from the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco – designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers.”



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