It is a great time to celebrate the wonderful contributions African Americans made to the world, including the automotive industry!

Can you imagine the sheer chaos on the road if it weren’t for turn signals and traffic lights? Have you thought about how a car would work without a transmission? Thanks to these creative and inventive thought leaders, you don’t have to! Because of the significant contributions of African Americans, we all have the luxury of a much easier and safer life on the road and behind the wheel.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the men who laid the foundation for many automotive inventions we use today.

Richard Spikes was a prolific inventor with more than a dozen patents to his name. Photo: www.firststudentinc.com

Richard Spikes

Richard Bowie Spikes (born in October 1878 in Texas) is the famed inventor of the automatic gear shift. This is a key component for the automatic transmission. His love of all things cars began during his early days as a mechanic, salon keeper and barber. Moreover, he was fascinated by the way gears worked together and wanted to improve on their functionality for better use.

A closer look Richard Spikes’ automatic gear shift patent filed back in 1932.

Additionally, his invention of the brake safety system is important because it provides the cars we drive today with a reserve braking system in case of normal brake failure.

Spikes proudly created several patents during his lifetime. These include the brake testing machine, milk bottle opener and the beer tapper. Also, he is widely credited for his involvement in creating the automatic turn signals in vehicles. Unfortunately, records of the patent have yet to be located.

Inventor Garrett Morgan created one of our greatest safety features on the road, the traffic signal light. Photo: Multnomah County Library

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan (born in March 1877 in Kentucky) had only an elementary school education when he started his first job as a sewing mechanic. Morgan was curious by nature. He put all his time and attention into fixing problems, with everything from hats to belt fasteners. Eventually, car parts too!

Ever wonder where the idea of a traffic signal came from? Morgan witnessed a carriage accident at a problematic intersection in his city. In 1923, he developed the first traffic signal. It was designed as a T- shaped pole with three settings, including a warning light (what we know as the red light today) alerting drivers to stop and allow other carriages to pass one another safely.

Morgan’s Innovation and Social Work

Morgan moved quickly to acquire the patent for his work and was successful in doing so. The United States, Britain and Canada immediately used his invention. Morgan eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.00.

Did you ever play the “Red Light, Green Light” game as a kid?  I have Garrett Morgan to thank for one of my most memorable childhood games!

Also, Garrett Morgan was the first African American in Cleveland, Ohio to own a car. He was heavily involved in social activism and was a member of the NAACP, donated to Black colleges and even opened an all-Black country club.

The importance of the invention of the traffic light is self-explanatory and so very appreciated. Just imagine all the chaos and crazy on the roads without them!

The first African American competitor in NASCAR history, Wendell Scott. Photo Credit: The Seattle Times

Wendell Oliver Scott

The need for speed was not lost on Wendell Scott. Scott is the first African American full-time competitor in NASCAR history!

Wendell (born August 1921, Virginia) loved nothing more than getting behind the wheel. He drove as fast as he could, as often as he had the opportunity. This led to quite a few speeding tickets in his day. However, those tickets and a reputation as a speedy driver led to his big break. the Dixie Circuit approached him, wanting Wendell to help fill seats at the track and drive interest and sales.

I think of Wendell as a “Harlem Globetrotter” of the racetrack. He always stunned the crowds with cool maneuvers and driving styles which drew more and more fans to the competitions. He enjoyed using his background in engineering to his advantage. Wendell used secondhand parts and junkyard finds to enhance his vehicles’ performance. Furthermore, he consistently placed in the Top 10 in over 140 races. It’s giving Fast and Furious vibes, right?

A young Wendell Scott is driver ready at one of his many racecar competitions. Photo Credit: Beyond The Flag

Wendell Scott’s Legacy

Various prestigious halls of fame have inducted Scott. These include the Black Athletes Hall of Fame; Jacksonville, Florida Hall of Fame; Danville Register & Bee Hall of Fame; National Sports Hall of Fame; and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Finally, he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. This is where you can check out his impressive self-built 1962 Chevy on display.

His youngest son, Wendell Scott Jr, followed in his dad’s footsteps with a brief NASCAR career himself. Sadly, he passed away just last year.

Celebrating Black History

Today, auto manufacturers around the world are making great strides in improving the cars we drive every day. Now, we have self-driving vehicles, enhancements to automatic steering, braking and acceleration! Additionally, inventions like parallel parking assistance, backup cameras and built-in GPS systems keep everyone safer.

Many of these advancements wouldn’t be possible without African Americans’ achievements in science, engineering, creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, people seldom give these contributions their due credit because of the historic difficulty for Black inventors to secure patents for their ideas.

Still, despite these barriers, Black innovators created some of the most important innovations of the automotive industry. They have improved and saved countless lives worldwide, including those of firefighters, soldiers, and everyday drivers.

This work serves as the blueprint for important advancements conducted by modern-day inventors and engineers.