In uniforms many thought them unfit to wear, some of the first men of color to bond over Harley-Davidson motorcycles were soldiers riding in the name of their country.
Some of the first Black bikers in post-war America were soldiers who were assigned to military police positions where they were responsible for monitoring the “colored” sections of segregated bases during World War II. They patrolled on bikes, officials said.
This year, as Harley-Davidson celebrates 110 years, the contributions of African Americans to biking culture are being recognized.
“Harley-Davidson has a shared history with African Americans in the motorcycling community and in American history, in general, that is really amazing,” said John Commissiong, director of Harley-Davidson’s marketing outreach. “We’re seeing a lot more African Americans joining together and riding more bikes. We’re also seeing more large-scale events targeted toward African-American bikers.”
Founded in 1903 by William S. Harley, 23, and Arthur Davidson, 22, the first Harley-Davidson bike started as a detailed sketch of a bicycle frame with an engine. A few years later, Arthur Davidson’s brother Walter joined the team. Within 20 years, the company that started in a Milwaukee, Wis., backyard shed grew to more than 2,000 dealers in 67 countries within 20 years, officials said.
One of those dealers was Baltimore resident William B. Johnson, who was also the first Black licensed racer. Though he would make a name for himself by winning “hill climb” races, because of racism in the early 1920s, Johnson was never publicly recognized.
Because African Americans were not allowed into the American Motorcyclist Association, the organization that hosted the events, Johnson was only allowed to join and enter the competitions after he and die-hard fans declared that he was an American Indian, according to Jim Babchak, who met Johnson in the late 1960s and honored his work in a 2009 edition of American Iron Magazine.
Tributes to Johnson, who died at age 95 in 1985, are displayed in Milwaukee at the Harley-Davidson Museum, where other notable African-American bikers are enshrined. One of the women who is recognized is Bessie Stringfield, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, made eight solo cross-country rides, choosing her destinations by tossing a penny onto a map.
In the 1950s, Stringfield became a nurse in Miami. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, serving as the only female in a unit of civilian couriers carrying U.S. Army documents to military installations.
“She really put female riders on the map, especially for the time frame she was riding all across the country,” said Sabrena Johnson, 48, a founding member of the Karamel Divaz Motorcycle Club, a Southern Maryland female biker group founded in 2005.
Johnson said she was introduced to motorcycles at a young age by her father, but was told it was too dangerous for a teenager. She didn’t get involved in riding until the mid-1990s.
“You didn’t see that many women riding in the early to mid-90s,” she said. “You would see one or two, but it wasn’t like it is now. In this area, there are a lot of female riders and more females are getting into Harley-Davidson motorcycles.”
Today, the Karamel Divaz includes 16 active members aged 30 to 52, Johnson said.
“Half of us are married. We have a few who are single with no kids, and a couple of our ladies are grandmothers,” she said. “Milestones are a big deal to the club and we celebrate. We’re there for each other.”
Johnson said the best part of owning her Harley-Davidson Street Glide, which she purchased eight years ago, is the adrenaline rush she gets from the long-distance rides. Her longest jaunt was from Maryland to Florida.
“There was a time when only White people would have Harley motorcycles,” she said. “Blacks would have the Yamahas and the Suzukis. They weren’t into Harley-Davidson the way they are now. Now, everyone has them. It symbolizes the United States of America.”
The museum opened in 2008 and is home to 500 motorcycles from every decade since Harley-Davidson’s beginning, including early racing bikes, bikes used by U.S. Army mail couriers and police motorcycles.
In 1969, movie fanatics flocked to theatres to see Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the film “Easy Rider.” They meandered through the Southwest en route to Florida atop Harley-Davidson choppers known as “Captain America” and “Billy Bike,” respectively. Both bikes were designed by Blacks—Benjamin F. Hardy, Sr. and Cliff Vaughns, officials said.
“There’s a lot of history in Black motorcycle clubs,” said Robert Smith, 69, vice president of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Maryland, named after the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of Black soldiers that was formed after the Civil War.
“We ride in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers,” he said. “We keep their name alive and when we go to schools and churches and we give them the history.”
The Maryland section of the club began in 1995, an offshoot of the original Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Chicago, which began in 1993. The club continued to introduce new chapters across America until 1999, when the National Association of Buffalo Soldiers & Troopers Motorcycle Club was created with seven chapters from California to Virginia.
Smith, like many others, said that fellowship is the key reason he joined a motorcycle club.
“It has made me appreciate motorcycling a lot more,” he said. “We don’t portray that biker-gangster mentality. It has a lot of honor to it.”