Harley-Davidson's Long History with Black Motorcycle Lovers

4798 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.

After using Harley-Davidson Motorcycles in World War II, a surplus of bikes caused prices to drop to under $100. (AFRO Photo/Alexis Taylor)
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.

Source: Afro American | Alexis Taylor
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