SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – He was a local man with a creative mind, an entrepreneurial heart, and a brave spirit – an African American man by the name of Walter Majors.
This is Majors, born to former slaves in 1879. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, a blacksmith and a violin repairman. But Majors is known most for being the first black man to not only drive a car in Springfield but to build it from the ground up.
“There’s an article in the newspaper that gives the route that he drove in the downtown area and through the square at the breakneck speed of estimated seven miles per hour,” John Sellars said. “It was a small gasoline engine. He worked in a bicycle shop and he used the things that he had.”
Sellars is the executive director of the History Museum on the Square. He says Springfield was a growing railroad town. But no one had ever seen a car – much less heard of one – until Majors drove to that same square in April of 1901.
“It’d be like a spaceship landing in the middle of the square,” Sellars said “Today, there’s just no concept of it. Unless you find somebody that followed the current events from the coast or something … it would really come as a complete surprise.”
“It was top heavy, kinda wobbly, it was red,” Harold McPherson said. “They called it ‘Major’s Machine.’ They called it ‘Major’s Machine.’ They didn’t have a name for it.”
McPherson is an amateur historian who grew up in Springfield during the 50s and 60s. He recalls his family was close to the Majors’ family and they spoke fondly of Walter.
“Springfield, Missouri, was a beneficiary of a lot of very talented African American people,” McPherson said. “Majors was part of that wave of renaissance of slavery.”
Majors’ inspiration for his “machine” may have come from the bicycle repair shop he owned across from the Colonial Hotel, which is now a university parking lot, on North Jefferson.
But his first recorded trip was down Saint Louis Street and it wasn’t too far from here that Majors may have been the first man in town charged for driving while black.
He was pulled over for “going too fast,” and since the City of Springfield had no ordinance for cars during that time, they charged him $1.
“That was the entrepreneurial spirit of Springfield,” McPherson said. “Rather than succumb to, ‘Well, we can’t do this, we can’t go here,’ well, we had to make our own. And it created a very creative, ingenious way to take care of yourself. You have your own stuff.”
McPherson says what Majors brought to the table was destroyed after the lynchings of 1906, which led to a decline in the local African American community.
A couple years later, Majors moved to Saint Louis eventually working with an incredibly successful black woman by the name of Annie Malone, a woman with over 30 beauty colleges across the country and the first person in Missouri to ever drive a Rolls Royce.
Over time, Major’s registered over a dozen patents with the Library of Congress including a car heater, a coin-operated taxi meter and a hairdryer.
Was Majors a pioneer of his time?
“Oh, no question, no question,” Sellars said. “Springfield’s very growth and advancement was based on Route 66 which was predicated on viable motor travel and he was a precursor to that. So, he was as they say today, on the cutting edge of what was to become one of the most historic routes in the United States.”
“He didn’t take into consideration what anybody thought about his work,” McPherson said. “To be that creative and do what he did … that’s a special thing. I was always inspired by that. It has inspired my life to probably do a lot of stuff I wouldn’t do. It inspired me to preserve his name and create as much information about him to the public as I can because I think I owe it to him.”
Majors died in Saint Louis in 1949 at the age of 70.