Homer Roberts: The First Black Dealership Owner

Illustration for article titled Homer Roberts: The First Black Dealership Owner
Image: Kansas City Public Library

African Americans have been faced with obstacles to their success in this country since its inception, and the auto industry rarely offered a path to move beyond that struggle. As a Black American, Homer Roberts was an early exception, managing to excel despite the prejudice he faced.

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Roberts was born in a small town called Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1888. After studying electrical engineering at Kansas State Agricultural College, he moved to Kansas City. Being an electrical engineer is impressive now. But at that time, a Black man wasn’t getting a job as an engineer. No one would hire him. Discouraged, he joined the Army where his skills went to good use. Roberts served in WWI, becoming the first Black man to earn the rank of lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. Like many generations that have come home after serving, particularly after a war, he needed work to support himself and his family.

In 1919, Roberts started his business of selling used cars. He couldn’t afford an actual lot, so he sold them off a street corner. A literal corner of a street. He understood he would be a nonstarter trying to begin selling in white areas, so Roberts placed ads in the local Black newspaper, the Kansas City Sun. Many later saw this advertising as a brilliant move. It was targeted advertising, and it worked.

He was selling so many cars that just four years later, he was able to build a $70,000 custom facility he called Roberts Motor Mart. At 9,400 square feet, the building not only housed the showroom for his used vehicles, but also various offices, service bays, a restaurant and a few retail spaces. The vehicle showroom itself was 1,800 square feet.

The business boomed. This was not only good for Roberts but the community as a whole. It brought jobs to a Black community that badly needed them. Roberts employed 55 people at his facility.

Roberts soon began getting the attention of automakers. In a four- year span from 1923-27 he became an auto broker and distributor for 15 other dealerships, along with receiving franchises from Oldsmobile, Hupmobile and Rickenbacker. The business began expanding so much that in 1928 Roberts took on two partners. Both Black men, the three business partners sought to make Roberts Motor Mart a business empire. The partners, Kenneth Campbell and Thomas Brown, split up the business operations. Roberts and Campbell moved to Chicago to set up shop with a new dealership while Brown stayed behind and oversaw the Kansas City operation.

The new partnerships and second location also brought about a new business name. Roberts Motor Mart was no more. The company was now known as Roberts-Campbell Motors, Inc. It’s unknown why Brown’s name was left out of the official company name. In 1929, Roberts-Campbell Motors opened its second location in Chicago at the Hotel Grand. A Hupmobile franchise, it was not only the automaker’s second dealer but the second Black-owned dealership as well.

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Unfortunately, economic conditions caught up with the business. The main store in Kansas City operated by Brown closed in 1930. Keep in mind, 1929 was the start of the Great Depression. With millions losing their jobs, no one could buy cars. With this all happening so long ago, information on some things is hard to come by. What I did find, however, pointed to the failure of the Kansas City store. Either out of ignorance of economic conditions or as a way to place blame on Brown, Hupmobile replaced Brown with a man named Harry Williams to oversee operations in 1930.

The effects of the Depression were felt company-wide, though. The Chicago store wasn’t doing as well as Roberts had hoped. Due to this, support for the Kansas City store started to dry up. Roberts let the store wither and it closed shortly after Willams was brought on. Nothing can be found on the fate of the Chicago dealership, but it’s safe to say that it closed.

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But what of Roberts? WWII started, and he served his country yet again. After the war, he worked at the Pentagon in public relations. After leaving the Army, he continued in the field and often worked with white-owned dealerships that wanted to attract Black customers but didn’t know how to. He died in 1952.

Roberts paved the way for many Black businessmen who might not have thought they could become successful because they were Black. His success, though brief, paved the way for others who came after him:

  • Dan Gaines opened and operated a Ford-Lincon store starting in 1940 on the South Side of Chicago.
  • Ed Davis started out with a Studebaker franchise in 1940. He eventually opened a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership that was in operation from 1963-71.
  • Robert Nelson opened an MG-Peugeot store in 1962. By 1967 he had a Ford, Triumph and Toyota dealership. In 1976 he opened a Jaguar store and the following year a Honda store. He attained megadealer status and was the first Black owner to do so.
  • Al Johnson was the first Black man to receive a GM franchise after the war. He opened his first Oldsmobile dealership in 1967.
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Were it not for these trailblazers, the over 200 Black owners there are today would not exist. While that number has dwindled, many today can take comfort in knowing that the road to becoming an owner is easier because of these men.

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. Dad. Lover of all things with 4 wheels. Weird interest in buses.

DISCUSSION

halftrackelcamino
Half-track El Camino

I’m only recently coming to realize (at 36) that for a long time, joining the Army was a major path for Black men to both gain and use skills that civilian America refused either to teach to them or employ them for. I recently caught the Memory Palace episode about the life of Louis K. Purnell, another Black man who was capable of (and achieved!) great things and probably would not have been able to do what he did if the Army hadn’t given him his start.

It was far from perfect. It was segregated, for one. It was men-only, for another. And of course, Black men shouldn’t have had to risk their lives in order to get skills that white men could get by just going to school or applying for jobs. After getting out of the Army, Black men routinely found themselves denied jobs that they were eminently qualified for. Even so, it represented opportunities that were otherwise simply inaccessible to Black men at the time. I’m generally pretty anti-military, but I have to give some credit here.