Ask anyone – even someone who knows nothing about the subject – to name a brand of motorbike and it’s a sure bet that they’ll mention the Harley-Davidson. This iconic bike has been around since 1903, surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression, and is deserving of its loyal following among the members and admirers of the Harley Owners’ Group (‘HOG’).
Created by childhood friends William S Harley and Arthur Davidson in Milwaukee, the company now manufactures various models of cruisers and racers across several US states, as well as in Brazil and India. Every five years, members of the HOG make a pilgrimage of sorts to the brand’s home town of Milwaukee for, ‘Harleyfest’, which last took place in 2013.
William B Johnson
Born in 1890 in Maryland, William B Johnson was the first African-American to join the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) and to be granted a licence to race. He quickly became a renowned and skillful hill climb racer, securing many victories until his retirement in his 40’s.
Johnson was also the first African-American owner of a Harley-Davidson dealership. He built his business from a converted blacksmith workshop until the, ‘Johnson’s Harley-Davidson’ dealership was a household name that drew customers from far and wide for over 60 years.
Harley-Davidson and African–American culture
African-Americans have long been a part of the Harley story. Bearing in mind the decades concerned in the early part of that story, it is quite a wonder that figures such as William B Johnson and others were allowed to achieve as much as they did. The 1920’s, and beyond, was a time of great suppression, segregation and discrimination and yet Johnson has secured a well-deserved place in Harley history.
It is difficult to know to what extent Johnson’s association with this great bike influenced other African-Americans to bond with the brand. Without doubt, Harleys have always been close to the heart of the African-American community. For example, in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, a young African-American, Bessie Springfield, took it upon herself to travel across each of the (then) 48 US states alone on her beloved Harley. Further securing the Harley’s place in African-American folk history. It is said that in the aftermath of the second world war, African-American former soldiers returned to the U.S. from fighting and were assigned roles within the local military constabularies, mainly patrolling the African-American section of segregated bases. They did so on their Harley-Davidson bikes.
Segregation and the AMA
In his early racing days, William ‘Wild Bill’ Johnson was only permitted to race in segregated race events. Exactly how he managed to secure even this, ‘privilege,’ is unclear, even to this day. Some say that he was granted AMA membership and allowed to compete after Johnson and his friends claimed that he was in fact an American-Indian; other sources say he was a central member of a Somers community and with their help convinced the AMA to allow him to race in exchange for allowing races to take place on a local hill that was ideally suited to the sport.
Whether intentionally or not, the fact that the AMA granted Johnson his licence cemented the early footings of diversity within the biking community. The HOG community now fully embraces people of all backgrounds – any rider is accepted as, ‘One of their own’.
Johnson was said to be a fearless hill climb racer throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. On being granted membership of the AMA he took part in a race in New York and won his class on a Harley – possibly spurred on by attempts on the day to have him disqualified from competing on account of the colour of his skin. He went on to compete regularly in New York, New England and Pittsburgh, taking part in as many as 20 races each year. He suffered injury on occasion, including in a Connecticut race in the 1930’s in which he lost control and also six teeth against his handlebars. He took only three weeks to recover himself before he was back in the saddle and racing once more.
He only stopped riding at the age of 82, after he fell off his bike in icy conditions. The physical damage resulted in an inability to use his arms. He still maintained his dealership, though, until his death, at the age of 95, in 1985.
Harley-Davidson was the first manufacturer of motorcycles to grant a dealership to anyone of African-American heritage. Johnson did not need to pretend to be of African-Indian descent to achieve this – he had proven his skills in riding and repairing Harleys for several years.
His exclusive dealership came under threat in 1969 when a competitor, Pat Cramer, was granted a dealership only five miles away from his shop. Many people saw this as an attempt to force him out of business in increasingly racist times, and Johnson not only resisted attempts by Cramer to buy him out but also (with help from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) put pressure on Harley-Davidson to resolve the competitive issue by forcing Cramer to cooperate under threat of having his (Cramer’s) dealership status revoked.
This all worked out rather well. Cramer agreed to drop the heavy-handed competition and instead resolved to cooperate with Johnson, and the two men not only began to work together but also became friends.
William ‘Wild Bill’ Johnson died in 1985 and is commemorated at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.