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 agreement in the post World War II
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 (‘Kings’ The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers) 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. As a result, Thompson challenged the history 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 there was evidence that there may have been another African-American dealer in the 1920’s in Kansas City, Missouri. His name was Homer B. Roberts.
Michael Flug, archivist, provided considerable resource information about Dan Gaines and subsequently, who to contact in Kansas City regarding Roberts. My initial trip to Kansas City was full of skepticism, as it was hard to believe that a black owned dealership could have been ‘under the radar’ all these years - - Kansas City ? and in the 1920’s ? Possible, but highly unlikely. Initially, Bill Livingston, a researcher at ‘The Black Archives of Mid America” provided references and an introduction to ‘Sonny’ Gibson, an African-American with considerable historical knowledge of the black populous in Kansas City, particularly in the hub of black business located at 18th & Vine. Gibson had published a remarkable photo book, “The Mecca of The New Negro”, that contains a wealth of historical insights into the black community of Kansas City. He provided considerable information about Roberts and introduced me to numerous contacts in the market.
After countless hours researching both The Kansas City Sun and The Kansas City Call newspapers, both African-American owned, it was confirmed that Homer B. Roberts was a new car dealer beginning in 1923. Although the vast majority of franchises represented by Roberts were small, niche models (Hupmobile, Rickenbacker, Whippet, Marmon and a distributor for Oldsmobile), a “dealer is a dealer”. His overall operation was comparable to all other majority makes in the market, including Ford and GM outlets. More information is provided on Roberts by clicking on the Roberts tab.
Nathan Thompson’s quest for “historical integrity” had achieved its objective.
Note: For those interested in reading about life the of African-Americans in Chicago, it is suggested that (‘Policy Kings’) is both captivating and must reading. The following contact should be made:
1403 East 75th St.
Chicago, Ill. 60619