Ed Davis, the son of a Louisiana food jobber, opened a used-car dealership in 1939 and became the first black new-car dealer when he was awarded a Studebaker dealership in 1940 in Detroit.
Despite racial prejudice and blatant discrimination, Davis did well with Studebaker, selling as many as 600 new cars a year in the early 1950s. By 1953, Studebaker had financial problems, and so did Davis. Both went out of business in 1956.
But unlike Studebaker, Davis made a comeback. He became the first black person to be awarded a Big 3 franchise - with Chrysler - on Nov. 11, 1963. Again, Davis did well, selling as many as 85 new Chryslers a month in early 1965.
Soon after the Detroit riots in 1967, Davis started to have labor problems. Jobs that had been closed to black people were opening. Davis' employees were in demand and joining unions. After a contract with his mechanics was negotiated in summer
of 1969, Davis' salesmen went on strike Sept. 5, 1969 - the day 1970 models were introduced.
In his book, One Man's Way, Davis said labor problems and a general feeling of being 'fed up and sick to death from fighting an uphill battle' made him close his Chrysler dealership in October 1971.
In an interview with Staff Reporter Arlena Sawyers, Davis, now 88, told how he got started in the auto business.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a car dealer?
My father was a businessman in Shreveport, La. He ran the concessions for Standard Oil Co. for the blacks who worked there digging ditches. My father was one of the first blacks to own a Model T Ford. I learned to drive and became very much interested in cars. By the time I was 15 or 16 years old, I showed a lot of good salesmanship working with my father. I came to Detroit in 1932. In 1934, I started working for a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer.
How did you land that job?
I went to the Dodge plant in Hamtramck, and they wouldn't hire me. They hired the whites in front of me, and when they got to me they shook their heads.
Right across from the plant was a gasoline station. I noticed that the gas station had a wash rack, so I asked the fellow who owned it to rent it to me. He said he'd rent it to me for a dollar a day, and I had to give him the dollar in advance.
I had a couple of dollars, so I asked him, 'If I pay you now, can I make up a sign so I can get started tomorrow?' He said, 'By all means.' I went across the street and got myself a cardboard box at the grocery store. I made a sign that said, 'Car wash 59 cents.' The next morning, there were two cars for me to wash. One belonged to the general manager of the Dodge plant. I washed his car that day, and a week later he brought it back, and I washed it again. The next time he came, he said, 'Gee, you do your job well. How would you like to have a job in the factory?' I told him, 'That's the reason I'm here, I couldn't get a job in the factory.'
He handed me his card and told me to go to the gate, and they let me in. They put me in the foundry where they melted iron. It was hard work and hot. The only people doing (this job) were African American.
How did you go from building Chryslers to selling them?
This same general manager came back and said he was putting his son, Merton Lamp-kins, in the automobile business - a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership. He said he'd like to have me work part-time selling cars to the guys in the foundry - to send them out to see his son, and he'd pay me something extra. I sent two or three guys out there. He handed me an envelope with $10 for each car.
Why do you think he approached you about selling cars?
I guess he saw something in me. I was able to get people to listen to me. After I started selling so many cars, Merton Lampkins offered me a job. He took me to his place of business and introduced me to his sales force. After about three hours, the salespeople got together and told the owner of the business that they would not work with me.
How did you feel when the white salesmen refused to work with you?
It was a matter of accepting a situation to achieve your objective. I didn't put it that way then, but I can put it that way now. As long as I was able to accomplish what I wanted and was selling more cars than they were, it didn't bother me too much. They were the ones worried about all the cars I was selling.
Take the service manager. Almost every day I sold a car. He would just take my cars outside and not get them ready. So I walked back there one day and asked him about somebody's car. He hit me right in the mouth and broke a tooth. He was a Southerner who didn't like it that I was making more money than he was.
But it didn't turn out the way he expected. I reached down and got a piece of metal and hit him across the head. It caused quite a commotion. The boss came down and took us both to the hospital. He waited and took us back. This service manager said, 'Mr. Lamp-kins, I'm not going to work with this man; I don't like him.' Lampkins said, 'You've proven you don't like him, and it appears that he doesn't like you very much, either. But if you don't work with him, you're not going to work at all.'
Everybody got the message: Not only would I hit if I needed to, but I had the support of the boss. You know what? This fellow lost his job, and years later I opened a dealership and he asked me for a job.
Did you hire him?
When did you get into the used-car business?
While I was working for Lamp-kins I had a number of people who didn't want to buy a Plymouth. I had a lot of people who wanted to buy Buicks and Chevrolets. I would talk to the Chevrolet dealer or the Buick dealer and tell him I had several people who wanted to buy a (new or used) Chevrolet or a Buick.
Who were your customers?
I got most of my customers from the organizations I belonged to, like my church.
What was your sales technique?
Lampkins furnished me a car to drive. And so I bought one to use as a demonstrator. The car I bought, I only paid $497 for it, a brand-new 1935 Plym-outh. I'd let (potential customers) keep it over the weekend so they could show it to their friends.
I'd find out where they lived and the kind of people they were. Say there was a family that went to church together. That was the family I wanted to drive this car over the weekend to church. After their friends saw it, of course they had to buy it.
When did you get your Studebaker dealership? Was it difficult?
It was 1940. Looking back, yes, it was difficult. But almost everything I was doing no other blacks had done. I took the responsibility for trying to make something happen that wasn't happening. I never decided, 'They're not doing something because I'm black.' I'd just find some way to do it.
Discrimination was happening then, and it's happening now. Opportunities are out there now for black people who want to get involved. Minorities who do their jobs well, learn the business before they get into it, get a good location and get money to operate on - they'll be successful.