African-American Automobile New Car Dealers

The Pioneers


For more than five decades, it was believed that Ed Davis was the first African-American to be awarded a new car franchise. On December 4, 1940, he was appointed a Studebaker distributor in the city of Detroit. Also, in 1963, Davis was awarded a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise in Detroit, the first African-American to receive a Big Three franchise in the post World War II era.

However, a series of events occurred which resulted in research that uncovered other African-Americans who were dealers prior to World War II. The inquisitive mind of Nathan Thompson, an African-American who was doing extensive research on his brilliant book ('Policy Kings') about life in the city of Chicago, was the catalyst for digging into files to determine just what the facts were.

Thompson had seen an article in the Spring 1999 edition of "African-Americans On Wheels" (published by Randi Payton) commenting on Davis being the first. As part of his research, Thompson had noted advertisements in 1936 by a Dan Gaines claiming to be a Ford dealer. Gaines was African-American. Thompson had challenged existing beliefs for "historical integrity".

The author of this site, who had been collecting historical information relative to African-American car dealers, was asked to look into the questions being asked. While in Chicago doing research at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, noted for its remarkable collection of African-American history, it was determined that not only was Gaines a Ford dealer during the 1936-1940 period, but evidence suggested that there may have been another African-American dealer in the 1920's in Kansas City, Missouri. His name was Homer B. Roberts.

After countless hours researching both The Kansas City Sun and The Kansas City Call newspapers, both African-American owned media, it was confirmed that Homer B. Roberts was a new car dealer beginning in 1923.

The vast majority of franchises represented by Roberts were niche models (Hupmobile, Rickenbacker, Whippet, Marmon, also a distributor for Oldsmobile). Importantly, as a franchisee, his sales/service facilities, financing and marketing initiatives met guides. Whether the franchise be awarded by Ford or Hupmobile, a "dealer is a dealer".

With the confirmation of both Homer B. Roberts and Dan Gaines as authorized African-American new car dealers, it was then possible to construct a historical time line of those who were the first to be appointed.

There is evidence that small, sub-dealers who specialized in sales, parts and service for white dealers were in operation prior to and following World War II. They have been excluded from the historical summaries contained herein. The first seven African-Americans, based on date of appointment, who were granted full sales and service agreements by an automotive manufacturer, were:

Homer B. Roberts 1923 Kansas City, Mo. Hupmobile
Dan Gaines 1936 Chicago, Ill. Ford
Ed Davis 1940 Detroit, Mich. Studebaker
  1963 Detroit, Mich. C-Plymouth
Robert H. Nelson, Jr. 1961 Chicago, Ill. Import
Robert Neal 1962 Chicago, Ill. Import
C. G. Hairston 1966 Danville, Va. Fiat
Al Johnson 1967 Chicago, Ill. Oldsmobile

For more information on each of these individuals, profiles can be found on the "Men" page or you can click on their names above. The first two African-American women (Barbara Wilson and Jackie Edgar ) to be appointed dealers are profiled at the "Women" page.

In addition, as the research was conducted and finalized, it was possible to highlight those African-Americans who were 'first' appointed by both domestic and import manufacturers. A listing of those individuals awarded new car franchises by the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, GM) beginning in the 1960's and going through the 1970s is also available.