Riding While Black The Story of Wild Bill Johnson and HD
Today marks a watershed of sorts as the last great American manufacturer of motorcycles, Harley-Davidson, commemorates Black History Month with exhibits which explore the evolution of African American motorcycle culture.
It all starts today at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
“African Americans have influenced and helped shape motorcycle culture throughout our history. Riding culture is seen differently today because of their numerous contributions to it,” said John Comissiong, director of African American outreach marketing, Harley-Davidson Motor Company. “We’re number one in sales to African Americans, and not only are we very proud of our shared history, we’re always looking for new stories to tell.”
The Museum exhibit includes bikes, stories and images of Harley-Davidson legends like William B. Johnson, the first African American Harley-Davidson dealer.
Born in 1890, William ‘Wild Bill’ Johnson made his motorcycle bones as a hill climbing racer in Somers, NY, and his abilities made Wild Bill the first African American to be allowed to join the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) in the late 1920s.
Johnson led the way busting through the color line well before African Americans as a group were allowed to join. Johnson raced in hill climbing events all over New England and won many victories well into his 40s before finally retired from racing to focus on his business interests. His dealership and his reputation among riders grew rapidly, and by 1969, that reputation was put to the test when Harley Davidson awarded a dealership to Pat Cramer a scant five miles from Johnson’s location. At the time, it was seen as a racist attempt to force Wild Bill out of business and it was unusual as Harley Davidson never placed dealers in such close proximity.
The NAACP entered the discussion and Harley Davidson was persuaded to notify Cramer that he’d have to co-exist with Johnson or his dealership will be pulled. The love of motorcycles is strong, and as the years passed, Cramer and Johnson became friends and even worked together. Johnson went on working in his shop and continued ride and repair his beloved machines well into his 80s. It was, in fact, a fall he suffered while riding that ended his days as a mechanic and he ultimately passed on in 1985 at the age of 95.
William ‘Wild Bill’ Johnson was a force and a maverick among bikers. and Harley Davidson and the AMA should be commended for having the good sense for giving a great man the first African American-owned Harley Dealership and granting him AMA membership. Next step, entrance into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and it will be a great day when his trailblazing legend is more widely recognized.
Also on the honor roll, Bessie Stringfield, the first known African American woman to ride solo cross-country on a Harley motorcycle in the 1930s and 1940s.
There’s also a tribute to Ben Hardy, the custom builder who helped create one of the most famous motorcycles in the world, Captain America, for the movie Easy Rider.
The Museum exhibits are an opportunity for bike enthusiasts and the public to personally connect with black riding culture and for African Americans to see themselves in Harley-Davidson’s history. In addition, participating Harley-Davidson dealerships around the country will have smaller African American history exhibits on display for riders and enthusiasts to enjoy.
To help gather and feature more stories of African American riders, Harley-Davidson launched Iron Elite in 2010 in the community section of its website designed to showcase African American rider stories, motorcycle customization and legends. The Iron Elite community at www.harley-davidson.com gives visitors a chance to share personal Harley-Davidson stories, show off their bike customization and learn more about key African American motorcyclists who have significantly impacted the sport of motorcycling.
In addition, Harley-Davidson supports and attends a variety of African American events to connect with current riders, such as Atlantic Beach Bike Week, Daytona Black Bike Week and the National Bikers RoundUp, where thousands of African American riders gather in the spirit of unity and in true biker form.
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The East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club have gunned their Harleys through the mean streets of Oakland, California since the 1950s. While Rosa Parks took her historic bus ride, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers stood bravely for equal rights, the East Bay Dragons MC risked life and limb during days when a black man riding a Harley chopper was a revolutionary act.