The history of the African American biker scene is filled with visionaries, artists, leaders and revolutionaries. People like William B. Johnson, the first African American Harley dealer. The teen-aged gypsy rider, Bessie Stringfield. P. Wee, the influential motorcycle club leader. And Benny Hardy, the unknown custom builder who created the most-famous motorcycle in the world, Captain America, for the movie Easy Rider. They each rode a motorcycle to showcase their pride, and fueled a movement more powerful than simple internal combustion.
The real revolution started in the late 1940s, as black infantrymen streamed home from World War II, hungry to replace the adrenaline rush of combat. Post-war, surplus bikes were available and cheap. In this era of segregated America, some dealers wouldn't sell a new bike to an African American. Factions began to form out of love of the motorcycle. Some rode choppers, some rode dressers. The next step was the motorcycle club, some all-black, others integrated. They started to form in the late 1950s. East Bay Dragons. Star Riders. Buffalo Riders. The Eagles. The Defiant Ones. The Magnificent Seven. The Chosen Few.
In his 2004 memoir Soul on Bikes: The East Bay Dragons MC and the Black Biker Set, Dragons founder and president Tobie Gene Levingston explains that, "The level of camaraderie that young black men found in motorcycle clubs was something that couldn't be obtained around the house; blowing off steam and being able to relate to like-minded individuals with the same struggles, experiences, upbringing and ideals - what it meant to be black."
However violent or anti-establishment some clubs were, they recognized that in order to get respect and be successful they need to stay positive and push their brothers to do good - within both the club and the community.
The most basic but essential element has always been the ride, and a Harley has always been at the top of the food chain. Chopped fenders, raked forks and a souped-up motor made you a man among men. Show up on the wrong ride, and you weren't taken seriously. You either got with it or got out. In Soul on Bikes, Levingston lays it out when speaking with a prospective member: "Man, you can't get into the club with this Jap shit. You need to get yourself a Harley-Davidson. When you get one, come back and see us."
The movement keeps rolling. Rare Breed Motorcycle Club was founded in 1989 to create a positive organization for African American men who share a passion for building and riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
"Our whole thing about forming Rare Breed is to be different from any other motorcycle club out there," says co-founding member KW. "And we let the other young black men know there are other things to life than being in the neighborhood and the drug scene, the streets and the violence." This group has since grown into a brotherhood of men from all walks of life, with chapters in Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Freedom is the universal truth shared by all riders: the freedom of riding without limits, barriers, rules or agendas. A rider never takes freedom for granted.
"Best freedom I ever had was on my bike, man," says P. Wee, a member since 1959 of the LA Defiant Ones MC, and one of the godfathers of the urban biker scene. "By the time I put it into fourth gear, I feel like I can take on the world."
With grace and determination, William Johnson broke down barriers as both the first African American Harley-Davidson dealer, and as the first African American licensed to compete in national motorcycle racing events. Born in Baltimore in 1890, Johnson moved with his wife in about 1917 to Somers, N.Y. (about 60 miles north of New York City), and found work as a chauffeur and handyman. The couple later bought a house in town. William converted a small blacksmith shop on the property into a general repair garage. A reliable and skillful mechanic, Johnson did well for a time, but when the business declined, he decided to become a motorcycle dealer.
Though records don't pinpoint the exact year, Johnson signed on with Harley-Davidson sometime in the 1920s, operating Johnson's Harley-Davidson out of the converted blacksmith shop that would house the dealership for nearly 60 years. Jim Babchak, the author of a 2009 story about Johnson for American Iron magazine, first visited the dealership in 1969, when he was a teenager seeking parts for an old Panhead.
"Johnson's Harley-Davidson had the intimate feel and smell of a small-town motorcycle dealership," recalls Babchak. "Parts were hanging from the walls, bikes were stuffed into the showroom with little space to walk, and the parts books rested on a glass counter. The place was permeated with a glorious mixture of gas, oil, and exhaust fumes. If he wasn't in back working on a bike, Mr. Johnson was there to greet all who entered."
Hillclimb racing was beginning to boom in the 1920s, and a steep slope in Somers behind Ivandell Cemetery was an inviting venue. A deal was struck between the land owner and the American Motorcyclist Association to lease the site for a competition, on the condition that the local favorite, William Johnson, could compete. Like most of American society at the time, the AMA was segregated, but Johnson knew how to play the game - he simply told the AMA he was an American Indian, according to a story retold to Babchak by Pat Creamer, a Harley dealer in Brewster, N.Y. That was good enough for all involved until 1932, when Johnson was challenged by an official at an AMA National event that barred "colored" riders. Johnson proudly produced his AMA membership card, and then won the race. Johnson raced successfully well into his 40s at hillclimb events across New England.
Friendly and generous to a fault, Johnson maintained his small dealership through the cycles of the rural economy, the changing times, and the shifting population of the region.
"I enjoyed going to dealership because of Mr. Johnson's embracing personality," recounts Babchak, "and it was one of the few dealerships in my area that was not intimidating. It was open to all who rode, with no pretense or airs, and just a wonderful old rural dealership, steeped in history and regarded as a Somers landmark."
Johnson continued to work in the shop, assisted by his son, Nelson, until he was well past 80 years old. He died in 1985, at the age of 95, and Johnson's Harley-Davidson closed for good.
Adapted from "Harley's First African American Dealer," American Iron magazine, November 2009.
Billed as the "Oldest Black and White Motorcycle Club in Nebraska," Los Diablos M/C was founded in Omaha, Nebraska, 1960. Omaha, it's clear, was a world apart from Los Angeles at the time. As young black men were banding together in the inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland, to share both an enthusiasm for custom motorcycles and the emerging black-urban culture, seven middle-aged guys in Omaha were just looking for riding buddies. Profiled in a 1973 edition of Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine, the Los Diablos rode cross-country with military precision, looked sharp, and followed strict rules that dictated each member would ride a Harley-Davidson FLH with minimal, and tasteful, customization. Choppers were simply out of the question.
In 1973, the club included at least two second-generation riders in President Robert Phillips and Road Captain Sherman Grant, whose fathers rode with each other. At the time, the youngest Los Diablos member was 33. Most had families. Leonard Smith, the secretary/treasurer, was an Omaha police officer. Clearly, this club was not looking for trouble.
"None of these guys has brushed with the law as far as club function is concerned," Smith told Enthusiast, "You can go to any city with a motorcycle club, and ask about Los Diablos, and they are ready to ride with us. I think we've got an A-One rating."
Los Diablos (not to be confused with the one-percenter Diablos M/C) is still on the road, meeting at its club house on Ames Avenue in Omaha. In August 2010, the club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a block party.
An influential leader of the Los Angeles biker community for more than 50 years, John Wesley McCollum, known to everyone as P. Wee, was present at the beginning of the urban biker scene in southern California. An early member of the seminal all-black Defiant Ones MC, P. Wee has lived the black biker experience almost since it started. A Navy veteran riding a 1941 Knucklehead out of San Diego, P. Wee gained a reputation as a lone wolf. A passage in Soul on Bikes: The East Bay Dragons MC and the Black Biker Set, the 2004 memoir by Dragons founder and president Tobie Gene Levingston, explains that P. Wee earned his name because he was a small guy on a big Harley chopper with high handlebars, and every time he pulled onto the L.A. set guys would look at him and shout, "Here comes P. Wee hanging off them handlebars," and the name stuck.
"I considered myself a young man's man, so a chopped bike was my way to go," said P. Wee. "It showed off my chopper, my style, my being. You know - a little of what they call flashiness. "
P. Wee started riding with the Los Angeles-based Defiant Ones in 1957, and moved to L.A. and became a member in 1959. The club was going through a change in leadership, with some members objecting to being branded outlaws, Levingston recalls in Soul on Ice. The Defiant Ones rode choppers and dressed tough, and had a problem being labeled as one-percenters, or gangsters. That element, including P. Wee, broke away and became the Defiant Ones.
"I got to hang out with the boys up here in L.A.," said P. Wee. "You see things going on in the streets that you like to do, ride around and have fun, play with the girls, crack a beer and whatever else."
P. Wee became president of the Defiant Ones in 1964, and has served the club in that position several times over the years, drilling younger members on the club's history and legacy. The club's current roster includes P. Wee's grandson, Andrew Thompson.
"I get a lot of respect because of my grandpa," says Thompson with pride. "I just try to carry the legacy and stay positive with it. He got the people who were acting a mess to be good and calm down on the bullshit they was doing. He got awards for being a part of the community." While one-percenters are prevalent in the motorcycle world, the biggest shock to anyone outside the circle is how community-driven most clubs are.
The Defiant Ones have always been a Harley-only club, and P. Wee is still an everyday rider, and runs a motorcycle shop.
"Best freedom I ever had was on my bike, man," says P. Wee. "By the time I put it into fourth gear, I feel like I can take on the world."
In 1930s America, a woman riding a motorcycle was an unusual site. A woman riding alone, cross-country on the dirt roads that laced together rural America was almost scandalous. And if that woman was African American, well, let's just say jaws might drop when Bessie Stringfield motored into town on her Harley-Davidson.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Stringfield made eight, long-distance, solo rides, eventually traveling through all 48 states. She left on her first ride at age 19 after tossing a penny on a map to select a destination. She didn't ride to make a statement. She just had a passion for motorcycles, and simply refused to let the barriers of her times hold her back. "I was somethin'," Stringfield told author Ann Ferrar in a 1990 interview. "What I did was fun and I loved it."
Ferrar profiles Stringfield in her book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road, an account that provides much of the historic record of her life and exploits. Stringfield was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, and moved to Boston with her parents. Orphaned at the age of five, she was adopted by a wealthy, white couple who nurtured her fierce independence. When she was 16, she asked for a motorcycle and was given a 1928 Indian Scout. She learned to do stunts on the motorcycle and began performing, riding side-saddle, on one footboard, and even standing on the seat.
In 1930, Stringfield replaced the Indian with a new Harley-Davidson, and set out on her first "gypsy tour," performing as a barnstorming stunt rider along the way. In an era that historian Rayford Logan has called "the nadir of American race relations," when discrimination against African Americans was rampant and often violent, Stringfield learned to cope. Often denied hotel lodging, she would seek a room with a local black family, or just sleep on her motorcycle. During World War II, Stringfield volunteered for a civilian courier service and rode from base to base with documents for the Army as the only woman in her unit.
"All along the way, wherever I rode," Stringfield told Ferrar, "people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle."
Stringfield relocated in the Miami, Fla., area after her adoptive parents died in the late 1930s. There she cruised the city streets, often with two poodles riding along on her knees, and was dubbed by the local press as the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami." In the 1950s, she earned a nursing license and made that her new career. She was also the founder of the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, and purchased a home that became the Iron Horse club house. In a 63-year riding career, Stringfield owned 27 Harley-Davidson bikes, "Always blue, and always new," she told Ferrar. The last was a 1978 FLH. She died of a heart ailment in 1993, at the age of 82.
In 2000, the American Motorcyclist Association created the Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award for Superior Achievement by a Female Motorcyclist. She was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.