Detroit Auto Industry

Detroit Auto Industry (January 11, 1993)
Duration: 00:27:46

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Themes: Urban Challenges | Poverty, Progress, and the Rise of African-American Businesses and Professionals | Motor City and Motown |

Guests: Theresa Jones, Charles Harrell, Mel Farr, Nathan Conyers
Host : Cliff Russell
Producer : Carlota Almanza

Summary: Originally broadcast in January 1993, the program consists of a roundtable discussion, moderated by host Cliff Russell, between four prominent African American auto dealers from the Detroit area: Mel Farr, a former star athlete with the Detroit Lions, owner of Mel Farr Ford, and chairman of the Black Auto Dealers Association; Charles Harrell, owner of Harrell Chevrolet; Theresa Jones, owner of Northwestern Dodge and former director of nursing at Henry Ford Hospital; and Nathan Conyers, owner of Riverside Ford. This program explores the status and progress of African Americans in the U.S. auto industry as the owners of auto dealerships.

A brief report from Dianna Craig at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Conference Center in Detroit sets the stage for the discussion. In addition to Russell's questions, several telephone callers help direct the focus of the discussion.

The conversation begins with an examination of the state of black auto dealers in general. A recent recession had squeezed some black dealers out of business, but the panel members agree that numbers are beginning to rebound.

Conyers, in particular, emphasizes that assessing that progress requires looking not just at what has been accomplished, but also at what still needs to be achieved. Judging from the percentage of African Americans in the nation's population and in the auto-buying public, he says suggests that something like 10-14 percent of the nation's 26,000 auto dealerships ought to be owned by African Americans. That would mean more than 2,600 black dealerships nationwide; there were, at the time, 14 in Michigan.

"When we gauge where we are against where parity would be... the number we are at is very small," Conyers says. "It is a growth from zero."

The panelists highlight several key factors that have a particular effect on African American dealerships, such as dealership location and the special credit problems of inner city customers. And they explore the sensitive issue of whether African American consumers are sufficiently willing to patronize black businesses.

They also discuss some of the early history of African Americans in the auto dealership business, such as Ed Davis. Davis was the first black dealer for one of the Big 3 automakers, opening a Chrysler dealership in 1964, and had been a Studebaker dealer as far back as 1947. They also speak of Al Merritt, the first black person to work as a salesperson for a Big 3 dealer in 1954, but who was not allowed to have a desk on the show-room floor.

The discussion illuminates some of the difficulties African Americans face in expanding their presence as dealership owners.

Related Production Materials held at MSU Libraries, Special Collections:
Box 7, File 8, Black Auto Dealerships and the Auto Industry – January 11, 1993 – Show # 2411
Box 14, File 17, Black Auto Dealerships