• Image Credit: GM

    Growing up around his father's auto body shop in suburban Philadelphia, Ed Welburn knew at an early age that he wanted to pursue an automotive career. His father made sure it would be something beyond car repairs.

    "He wanted me to know that was a dirty business," said Welburn, now vice president of global design at General Motors. "So the only thing I was allowed to do in the shop was dust the floors. It was a good reason to stay away from there."

    Sparked by a visit to the Philadelphia Auto Show as a 10-year-old in 1960, he pursued a career in automotive design. When he was first hired at GM in the early 1970s, he was the first African American car designer. Fifty years later, Welburn is the highest-ranking African American executive in the U.S. auto industry.

    He's responsible for a team of more than 1,800 employees throughout the world and sits on the Board of Directors for the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Among the honors he's received in his career, he was named one of the Most Influential Blacks In America by Ebony magazine.

    Here's a look at other African Americans, both past and present, who have influenced the U.S. auto industry:

  • Jimmy Settles
    • Image Credit: UAW

    Jimmy Settles

    Occupation: Vice President of the United Auto Workers

    When the UAW negotiated contracts with Detroit's Big Three automakers last year, Settles played an integral role in the sometimes-contentious negotiations that ultimately resulted in more automotive jobs. Of course, that's nothing new for Settles, now more than 40 years into his career. He was elected to his first union position in 1970, not long after his 20th birthday. He started as a member of the UAW Local 600 while working at the Dearborn Iron Foundry. Now he's the vice president of a union that has roughly 400,000 active members.

  • Fletcher V. Davidson
    • Image Credit: Toyota

    Fletcher V. Davidson

    Occupation: Group Vice President and General Manager, Toyota
    In his capacity as Toyota's group vice president and general manager for customer services and sales, Davidson oversees 2,400 associates who produce an average of $3.5 billion in sales. He joined Toyota in 1973 as a parts planning administrator and worked in a variety of parts-related roles as he climbed through the company.
    Last month at the North American International Auto Show, Davidson was named 2012 Executive of the Year during the Urban Wheel Awards ceremony. He played a key role last year in helping Toyota function during the series of Japanese catastrophes--eathquake and tsunami-- that brought work to a standstill.
    "This award could not come at a better time, as supply is improving for our dealers and customers and we are preparing to introduce 20 new products over the next few years," Davidson said, as he accepted the award.
  • Ralph V.Gilles
    • Image Credit: Chrysler

    Ralph V.Gilles

    Occupation: President and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports, Chrysler
    Over the past 20 years, Gilles has risen from a designer sketching interiors at Chrysler to his most recent most of president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports, to which he was appointed in June 2011. Previously, he served as the president and CEO of the Dodge brand in 2008.
    He's perhaps most widely known for leading the design team that produced the Chrysler 300 sedan, one of the company's most visible vehicles. He serves as the executive sponsor of the Chrysler African American Network and helps lead the Chrysler Global Diversity Council. Gilles also serves on the board of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, his alma mater.
  • Rodney O'Neal
    • Image Credit: Delphi

    Rodney O'Neal

    Occupation: CEO of Delphi Automotive.

    When General Motors spun Delphi off into an independent company in 1998, O'Neal, a long-time GM employee followed. He was elected as a vice president of interior systems. Nine years later, he was named chief executive officer. He began his automotive career as a student at General Motors Institute and currently serves on the board of directors at Goodyear Tire and Sprint/Nextel. His biggest achievement perhaps was guiding Delphi through a turbulent bankruptcy while the automotive industry experienced a severe contraction.

  • Don Butler
    • Image Credit: GM

    Don Butler

    Occupation: Vice President of Marketing, Cadillac

    Butler has enjoyed something of a vagabond career in the auto industry. He first joined General Motors in 1981 as a student and rose through the ranks. He was named a vice president at OnStar in 2001, was named chairman and managing director of General Motors Egypt in 2005, served as a senior vice president for marketing at a Seatte tech company and most recently, returned to GM to help lead its Cadillac renaissance.

    He earned a bachelor’s degree at General Motors Institute and his M.B.A. from Harvard, where he attended as a GM fellow. He’s a previous recipient of the National Black Engineer of the Year award in the U.S. and was also named one of the Top 50 Business Leaders of Egypt.

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