At first glance, the fact that African-American owned car dealerships exist in the United States would seem to be a non-story. However, as observed in the Toyota-sponsored miniseries, “African Americans and the Auto Industry,” it’s a fairly recent development in the history of American business.
The first recorded African-American to own a new car dealership in the U.S. was Homer D. Roberts of Kansas City, Mo.
A World War I veteran, Roberts began his business selling used cars in 1919. He also provided financing and insurance, both of which were difficult for Black motorists of the time to get. Well-received by the African-American citizens of Kansas City, it is said fully 85 percent of the area’s Black population did business with Roberts.
In 1940, Ed Davis was awarded a Studebaker store in Detroit. Later, his Chrysler/Plymouth franchise made him the first African-American to be granted a new car dealership after World War II. Davis went on to become the most famous of the pioneering African-American new car dealers.
Any student of race relations will tell you things couldn’t have been easy for these men. Discrimination was prevalent in those times and according to Damon Lester, president of the North American Minority Dealers Association (NAMAD), it still can be. In the documentary, Lester said, “Black dealers faced discrimination back then — and even today there are still a lot of people who can’t advertise they own their stores.”
As a result, Black dealers like Davis had to learn to turn adversities into advantages. In his autobiography, “One Man’s Way,” Davis recounts how one of the travails he endured in the 1930s set him up to be the top salesman at the dealership where he honed his craft.
The only Black person employed in sales there, Davis was not allowed on the showroom floor. Instead, he was sequestered at a desk in a storage room in the back of the dealership. This meant he couldn’t sit around waiting for walk-ins. He had to go out into the community and drum up business on his own.
Davis wrote; “Not being allowed to work the floor made me learn to sell cars — rather than being an order-taker. I was forced to go out into the community and get to know people.”
The same mindset can be found in the man who became the world’s first Black Rolls-Royce dealer in 2016. In an interview with Savoy magazine, Thomas Moorehead, owner of Sterling Motor Cars in Sterling, Va., said, “Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take a step forward. In this business, you have to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way to the top.” In 2017, having demonstrated that willingness time and again made Moorehead the world’s first African-American Lamborghini dealer, as well.
According to the Toyota mini-series, Damon Lester, of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers explains: “The role that black dealers play today is as pillars of the community. You look at all the direct and indirect support that a dealership provides within that community, and it plays an intricate role creating a circle of life of how cash circulates through the community.”
So, while it might seem like it ought to be common, African-American car dealers remain few and far between. However, they are also some of the most resilient entrepreneurs in the world of business. — Lyndon Conrad Bell, Motor Matters
Manufacturer Photo: 1.) Ed Davis was one of the most famous of the pioneering African-American new car dealers. In 1940, Davis was awarded a Studebaker store in Detroit. Later, his Chrysler/Plymouth franchise made him the first African-American to be granted a new car dealership after World War II.
2 – 3.) Old dealerships photo and Mary Tipton applying accent stripes on Cadillac from Alex Bryant (Kaiman Bros.)
4.) From left-to-right: Damon Lester, President NAMAD, Steve Ewing, Owner Wade Ford, Atlanta, GA. (Diversity Advocacy Award), Irving Matthews, NAMAD Chairman- Owner Stuart Ford, Stuart Florida.
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2018