Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Chicago dealer Rufus Dukes.
For five decades, Ed Davis of Detroit has been recognized as the first black to receive a new-car franchise from a manufacturer in the United States. His pioneering business and community achievements have been well-documented.
However, research conducted during the past 18 months has found four blacks who preceded Davis as dealers.
Homer Roberts was the first. After World War I, Roberts, a decorated Army officer, returned home to Kansas City., Mo., and began brokering cars in the black community.
In 1923, for $70,000, he built a 9,400-square-foot facility that housed his automotive operations plus 14 retail businesses and six professional offices.
His dealership originally was Roberts Co. Motor Mart. It had an 1,800-square-foot showroom, offices and service areas and space to store and display 60 vehicles. At its peak, the business employed 55 blacks.
Roberts was awarded a franchise by Hupmobile in 1923 and by Rickenbacker in 1925 and was a distributor for Oldsmobile from 1924 to 1927.
During the 1920s, he brokered vehicles from 15 other dealers/distributors in the Kansas City market.
On to Chicago
In 1928, Roberts took on two black partners, Kenneth Campbell Jr. and Thomas 'Big Piney' Brown, both of Kansas City. Roberts and Campbell moved to Chicago and in 1929 opened a Hupmobile dealership at the Hotel Grand on South Parkway. It was the second black-owned dealership.
Both the Kansas City and Chicago dealerships were called Roberts-Campbell Motors Inc.
Brown managed the Kansas City dealership until it closed in 1929. Reportedly, Hupmobile appointed Harry Williams, a black, as a replacement in 1930, but little documentation is available.
Dan Gaines opened a Ford dealership on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 1, 1936. It was the third black-owned dealership. He later moved to Wabash Avenue and remained in business until 1940.
Gaines advertised his dealership as 'The only Ford-Lincoln-Zephyr dealer owned and operated by race personnel.' He also operated a loan company that provided financing for his new-car and used-car customers and other business ventures.
Davis was 4TH
Davis Motor Sales in Detroit was the fourth black-owned dealership.
Ed Davis received a Studebaker franchise in 1940 and also was a subdealer for Ford starting in 1957. Davis became a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in November 1963 and remained in business until 1971.
Research shows that the South Side of Chicago was the home for many pioneer black dealers. Ten of the first 25 (40 percent) black dealer appointments were in Chicago.
Robert Nelson Jr., a pilot in World War II and the Korean War, was the first black to receive import-car franchises.
He took on MG and Peugeot in 1962. In 1967, he opened a Ford dealership in Chicago in partnership with Ernie Banks, the legendary Chicago Cubs shortstop.
Robert Neal also received import franchises (Triumph-British Motor Corp. in mid-1962) and was the first black dealer to attain megadealer status.
His operations were in the Stoney Island section on Chicago's South Side.
He was the first black dealer for Toyota (1967), Jaguar (1976) and Honda (1977).
He also represented Pontiac and Dodge and a dozen other new-car marques, mostly nice imports, during a period of two decades.
First for GM
Al Johnson was the first black to receive a General Motors franchise after World War II.
He became an Oldsmobile dealer in 1967 and switched to Cadillac in 1971. Olds selected Rufus Dukes, a black, to replace Johnson when he acquired Cadillac.
All of these men were pioneers in the retail auto industry, and they paved the way for others.
Today, there are about 475 black-owned dealerships in the United States, representing about 2 percent of the industry total.