One of the special cars on display at the 2019 Atlanta Councours d’Elegance will be Chuck Berry’s gleaming red Cadillac. CREDIT: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of A
Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of A

Classic cars owned by iconic black Americans on display next month

Cars belonging to Colin Powell, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Berry and B.B. King will all be gathered together next month, along with other automobiles once owned by African American icons.

Organizers say it’s the first time a collection of such has been presented in the world of high-end car shows. The exhibit, at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, seeks to expand the definition of who can be a car collector.

At the exposition, part of the 2019 Atlanta Concours d’Elegance, the cars of at least six iconic African Americans will be on display, said Aaron Spaulding, the curator for the exhibit. He said the highlight of the show is a 1935 Duesenberg belonging to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an actor and tap dancer who was the most highly-paid black American performer in the first half of the 20th century.

The car is rare, Spaulding said — only 470 Model Js were made — and Robinson was the only black person to purchase the $18,000 vehicle new.

“He was extremely important in the world of entertainment,” Spaulding said. “That’s the crowning piece in my jewelry box, so far.”

Though well-paid, Robinson often had demeaning acting roles, Spaulding said, and struggled with his place in the industry. Displaying his car shows that despite issues, he was still able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

“He had the last laugh,” Spaulding said. “He went and got one of the baddest cars on the planet.”

Bill Wallet, the CEO and founder of the 4-year-old Atlanta Concours, said it was important to gather the cars of notable black owners to reflect the demographics of Atlanta. While most car shows attract wealthy, white patrons, he said, he hopes this one will be of interest to people who may not have been to such an event before.

In its first year, he said, the Atlanta Concours showcased the cars of James Collier, a black collector from Atlanta — and was the first group to have done so. He said it’s important to keep bringing new people into the hobby, both to keep it alive and to encourage mingling among people who might not naturally meet each other.

WATCH: The James Collier classic car collection

“Cars have no politics, no religion,” Wallet said. “Cars appeal to all people. …A love of cars, old cars, classic cars, is not restricted to a very narrow group of people who have a very specific ethnic background.”

In the world of car shows, Wallet said, there’s not a lot of innovation. But he hopes that the efforts to look for diverse owners and unique vehicles will help bring Atlanta’s event to a larger audience.

Having vehicles belonging to Robinson, Powell, Ali, Berry, King and Sammy Davis Jr. shows different aspects of those well-known people’s personalities and desires, Spaulding said. He said he has a sense of pride regarding his role in bringing them together.

“It’s a humbling experience, to tell a story that’s never been told,” he said.

The exhibit is just a small piece of the larger, two-day car event on Oct. 19 and 20, Wallet said. Tickets are $75 in advance or $25 just for Saturday admission, when driver-level cars will be on display; the high-end car competition will take place Sunday. The event will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

“There’s a lot to see,” Wallet said.

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