By Chris Dukes, Territory Sales Manager
Black History Month is a powerful reminder to all Americans and the world of our undeniable impact on this country. We all know the famous names, the incredible activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Harriett Tubman, and Frederick Douglas. Their legacies will live on, inspiring us to do better, be kinder, and spread change wherever we go. Their struggles and messages serve as a guiding light for all.
In the black community, many of us can also find examples of revolutionary thinking within our families, neighborhoods, and professions. We are fortunate enough to know everyday people who aided in our people’s advancement and changed how society looks at opportunity and race.
My family’s story intertwines with the tale of the American automotive industry. My grandfather, Reverend Rufus Dukes, worked as a mechanic at Thomas Beckley Dodge on the south side of Chicago. Later in life, my dad would attribute his fascination with cars to his father’s work. My father, Rufus Lamar, or R.L. as he would be known, was a serial entrepreneur. After serving as a US Airforce mechanic in the military, he began working at the same dealership as his father before him. In 1951, the dealership owners faced financial hardship and considered closing their doors. As fate would have it, my father took over, becoming one of the first black franchise dealers in the country but retaining the Thomas Beckley Dodge name.
Soon after, he took a significant risk and opened a resort in northern Michigan, moving his family from the city to the country. The resort thrived, but the excitement of a big-city dealership called my dad back to Chicago. He joined the sales team at Louis D. Arkow Dodge, but the dealership would not allow him to be on the showroom floor. Despite the discrimination, he became one of the top performers, earning referrals and building his name.
He was a natural salesperson, and while successful, he longed for more. He wanted to go into business for himself. As it often does, life presented a unique opportunity, and my father took a sharp left turn to Kingston, Jamaica, where he opened Kingston’s first roller-skating rink. Again, he found great success in Jamaica, but the auto industry remained close to his heart. He had proven himself a savvy business owner, successful salesperson, and relationship builder. In those days, the industry had very few African American dealers, but Dad was a determined soul. In 1971, he successfully lobbied General Motors Holdings, who offered him his first dealership which he purchased from his fellow auto industry pioneer Albert Johnson. Finally, he had his own place bearing the family name. The sign read “R.L. Dukes Oldsmobile” and proudly sprouted from the sidewalks of Chicago’s southside. According to Black Enterprise Magazine, the dealership became one of the top 100 Black-owned firms in the country.
My father was an active participant in the advancement of minorities in this country. In his formative years, he battled discrimination, and even as the owner of multiple businesses, he fought prejudice at every corner. In fact, some shoppers believed the OEM provided his store with inferior vehicles. Nevertheless, he persisted. He built a wildly successful business, and when he passed away in 1987, he allowed me the distinct honor and privilege of running the dealership.
Over the past 25 years, the lessons I learned from my father empowered me with the confidence to build a longstanding career in the Automotive industry. In addition to running my own dealership, I’ve worked for Nissan Motor Corporation, and had a front-row seat in the digital evolution of our industry, working for companies such as Autobytel, Reynolds & Reynolds, and Autosoft. The road has not been easy. I’ve experienced the glass ceiling, watching businesses pass over Black candidates to offer opportunities to their less qualified counterparts simply because of a difference in skin color. While I was often disheartened, the spirit of those that came before me pushed me to continue.
My experience in the industry has taught me that we have made progress but still have a long way to go. There is no denying that my family has had a taste of the American dream, but it only came through sheer grit and determination. That sense of strength, grace, and dignity in the face of hard times makes our people great and makes me proud to be a Black American.
Today, organizations such as NAMAD and the various OEM minority dealership groups have significantly impacted opportunities for minorities in this industry. Additionally, companies like Autosoft and others in the industry focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to bring more diversity to this industry and create career opportunities for everyone.
This Black History Month, it is essential that we reflect on stories like my family’s and countless others across this great nation. They remind us of where we’ve been and where we can go with a little hard work and a lot of passion.
One Family’s Journey in Automotive
Black History Month is a powerful reminder to all Americans and the world of our undeniable impact on this country….
2022 Recap and a Look into 2023
As the automotive industry continues to evolve, technology that helps streamline the experience for both customers and employees has become increasingly…
How to Control Dealership Expenses with a DMS
Managing a balance sheet has always come with challenges, but dealership cost control is growing increasingly complicated.