Aligning with our purpose of Restoring the Rhythm of Your Life®, we are proud to highlight the dedication and sacrifice of three automotive industry pioneers in celebration of Black History Month. Each of these individuals’ efforts inspired a new generation of automobile enthusiasts through their courage and success. Many of these names have been lost or forgotten throughout the decades, but it is important to recognize their accomplishments and contributions to the automotive industry.
Leonard Miller grew up just outside of Philadelphia in the midst of the Great Depression and fell in love with automobiles at a young age. “All of these rich, white families had all these rare cars that were beautiful and sounded good,” Miller told Smithsonian Magazine. “So, I said that was for me. And that’s what started me off to a lifetime of races.”
Miller went on to create the Miller Brothers Racing team; the group won dozens of races throughout the Northeastern part of the United States from 1969 to 1971. He became the first African American owner to enter a vehicle in the Indianapolis 500.
Miller continued to pave the way for African Americans. In 1972, Miller created the Black American Racers Association. The organization focused on driver development and honoring African Americans in auto racing. At its height, it included 5,000 members from 20 states and several racing disciplines.
Homer B. Roberts
Homer B. Roberts strived for excellence in not only the automotive industry but also in defending our nation — Roberts was the first Black man to attain the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps.
After the war, Roberts moved back to his hometown of Kansas City and began selling cars, targeting the African American community. With the help of the Kansas City Star, a prominent local Black newspaper at the time, Roberts had secured 60 sales to all Black drivers. In the next decade, Roberts captured more success after opening a new dealership, Roberts Company Motor Mart — including acquiring new office spaces and showrooms and hiring salesmen.
Unfortunately, Roberts’ dealerships were hit hard by the Great Depression, and ultimately closed, but not before Roberts’ name was etched in automotive history.
McKinley Thompson Jr.
Walking home from school one day in his native Queens, N.Y. neighborhood, a 12-year-old McKinley Thompson Jr. eyed a silver Chrysler DeSoto Airflow. “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight,” he later told the Henry Ford Museum. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.”
After serving in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, Thompson entered and won a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. He was awarded a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. Soon after graduating, Thompson went to work for Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, Michigan, making him the first African American automobile designer. Some of Thompson’s first projects contributed to the Ford Mustang and the Ford Bronco.