September 20, 2018
By all accounts, William Butler Johnson was a model servant. He and his wife, Anna, worked happily for the Paulsen family – first in Baltimore, Maryland; later in Somers, West Chester County, New York – for many years. William was the chauffer; Anna maintained the Paulsen home. When Mr. Paulsen died, they lost their jobs. This unfortunate occurrence, history would show, was ultimately to their great benefit.
By then William and Anna had established themselves as respected members of the Somers community. With the help of some friends in high places, they were able to purchase a home, along with the former blacksmith shop behind it. Johnson converted the shop to a garage and soon gained a reputation as “a most reliable, honest, and skillful mechanic.”
Along with his business, Johnson also developed a keen interest in motorcycles and racing. Hill climbing was just coming into its own and he soon proved himself a fearless, natural talent. When the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) inquired about a piece of property called Somers Hill, as a site for hill-climb competitions, Johnson used his influence with the owner to help the deal go through. The owner would lease the property, but only if Johnson was allowed to participate in the races; at the time, AMA policy prohibited non-white competitors in sanctioned races. The AMA relented, Johnson broke the color barrier, and was soon ranked among the top climbers, noted for his natural ability on the toughest courses.
The sport was not without challenges, however, even for Johnson. During a race in the late 1930s, Johnson lost several teeth when his motorcycle reared back, and the handlebar struck him in the mouth. Many said the accident would have seen lesser men hang up their puttees, but Johnson was soon back in the saddle.
As Johnson’s garage business decreased, he turned to dealing Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the early to mid-’20s making him the first African-American Harley-Davidson dealer known to date. According to Johnson’s friend, Piet Boonstra, “Johnson loved the sport, loved motorcycles and loved people. He was a genuine motorcyclist in every fiber of his being, and there wasn’t a motorcyclist for miles around who didn’t know and like him.” He was reported to refuse to sell a motorcycle to someone he felt was not serious about the sport or not prepared to handle a large bike. By caring more for the rider than the money, he earned the admiration of riders and non-riders alike.