BAND OF BROTHERS
The brotherhood of urban bikers serves to teach a rich history of power, freedom and the spirit of the open road. This is their story.
Words: Michael Crenshaw
Starting with a spark, the mixture of fuel and air, then detonation, which pushes one full revolution—a system of organized chaos—is the most essential, fundamental and basic form of the process of an engine. To describe the African American urban-biker scene would be to describe one of visionaries, artists, leaders and revolutionaries. For it is not what one or two members of the scene have achieved—it is the unnamed, the mystics, the workers of the underground who fought their way to achieving unified promotion and self-preservation. It is the brotherhood of men and women who fought for the greater cause, rather than the selfish one; it is the story of a revolution greater than the engines that power their movement.
To anyone outside the circle and “the know,” the names are as vast as the freedom one gets from the open road and the earth beneath your feet. At the heart of this movement are such unseen patriots as Benny Hardy, Tobie Gene, P. Wee, Bessie Stringfield and William B. Johnson, to name but a few. To serve a cause greater than themselves, these men and women chose a weapon to showcase the sheer pride and patriotism one gets from riding. Their instrument of choice: the motorcycle.
“I considered myself a young man’s man, so a chopped bike was my way to go,” recalls John Wesly McCollum, or “P. Wee,” as Los Angeles Harley-Davidson club The Defiant Ones would recognize him. “It showed off my chopper, my style, my being, you know—a little what they call flashiness.” There is no greater freedom than that which a man finds with his bike, and the urban-biker set defined their style and uniqueness within the biker community by doing things that hadn’t been done. The wheels of revolution were starting to turn with the clubs of the 1950s.
Words are powerful weapons. A person’s resiliency to the effects words can have on the soul, not allowing them to penetrate dreams or aspirations, is of great importance. One such case is that of William B. Johnson, the first African American Harley-Davidson dealer, who also happened to be an accomplished racer, going so far as to tell the American Motorcyclists Association (AMA) that he was Indian, in order to compete. He would become their first African American member sometime in the late 1920s, years before any other black rider would be accepted into the association. Johnson would not be stopped.
Being black and owning a small dealership in a rural New York community meant that larger dealerships were threatening to take away his business; Johnson had to react. With help from a friend and the local community, they made sure that he was not strong-armed out of business. The NAACP contacted Harley seeking justice, reacting to a claim that the ultimate goal was to squeeze Johnson out of business. Harley sided with Johnson, saying if he wanted to be a dealer, he would remain one, and other dealers would have to come to terms with that. As far as dealerships went, Johnson set a milestone that Katherine Johnson would mirror almost 80 years later by becoming the first African American woman to become a Harley-Davidson dealer.
Paving the road ahead, not only for African American women but women as a whole, was a free soul named Bessie Stringfield. Toughened from years of biking for the military as a dispatch rider, Stringfield cut her teeth by riding cross-country solo an alleged eight times. There are stories of Stringfield dressing like a man in order to be allowed to race, then revealing herself as a woman, only to be denied the prize money. Her skill earned her the nickname “The Negro Motorcycle Queen,” which was rightfully changed to “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Stringfield helped evolve the perception of women in a motorcycle crowd inundated with men.
Before the 1969 cult film Easy Rider was released to a generation of beatniks and radicals, choppers were a holy institution of the motorcycle world that expressed the freedom and ingenuity of riders nationwide. Full “dressers” or “garbage wagons” were mostly Harley-Davidson touring bikes (saddle bags, large fairings and trunks) that would be chopped, raked and torn down to exacting specifications for the ultimate custom look. Perhaps the most famous motorcycle ever, the “Captain America” chopper from the film, was a Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide that, it was recently revealed, was chopped and modified by a black builder named Benny Hardy, a man hand-picked by Peter Fonda. The news struck to the core of the motorcycling community: Could the revolutionary design and innovation of extending and chopping bikes have originated within the black motorcycle culture?
As early as the ’40s and ’50s, with World War II coming to an end and black infantry men coming back from service, looking for a thrill comparable to the constant adrenaline rush that war had provided, a surplus of bikes were available—and for cheap. “Japanese motorcycles [hadn’t] hit the scene yet,” explains Dan Tibbs, owner of Nexx Unlimited clothing. It was Triumph, Indian and some German cycles. It was like the same kind of car that you drove, you drove an American car.” Oftentimes dealerships, so engrossed in the bigotry and hate of the day, wouldn’t allow African Americans to purchase new bikes off the showroom floor. “A lot of it was old inventory, which was cheaper to get than a brand-new motorcycle,” Ronald Price, director of Free Black Horse, explains. “Back in the day, those guys started taking the bikes and chopping the shit out of them.” With the combination of accessible motorcycles and a following of gearheads who needed an escape from the stresses of everyday life, as well as the ability to build a motorcycle as a representation of themselves, factions began to form out of love of the bike. Enter: the motorcycle club.
“I got to hang out with the boys up here in L.A.,” Defiant Ones member P. Wee remembers. “You see things going on in the streets that you like to do: ride around and have fun, play with the girls, crack a beer and whatever else.” The level of camaraderie that young black men found in motorcycle clubs was something that couldn’t be obtained elsewhere; blowing off steam and being able to relate to like-minded individuals with the same struggles, experiences, up-bringing and ideals—what it meant to be black.
Clubs with a violent demeanor—referred to as “one-percenters”—often disbanded rival gangs. One of the oldest all-black motorcycle clubs, the East Bay Dragons, was known for having members who carried chrome hatchets at all times. At times it was for intimidation, and occasionally, well, it was to fight for their lives. Forcing rivals out of their territory was often a violent, sometimes deadly endeavor, but not every club, including the East Bay Dragons, stuck to a gangster code throughout their history.
However violent or antiestablishment some clubs were, they recognized that in order to get respect and be successful, they needed to stay positive and push their bro-thers to do good—within both the community and themselves. The East Bay Dragons are one of the biggest examples of this today, giving countless hours of community service and charity back to their community.
“As a people, we’re not really mad,” pro-claims Tibbs. “We come together with music and groups within the black community. We ride for the love of just riding.” This bond was, and always has been, stronger than any mind-altering substance. A cofounding member of Rare Breed motorcycle club, KW remembers helping others fight the temptation of drugs: “Our whole thing about forming Rare Breed was to be different from any other motorcycle club out there. And we let the other young black men know there were other things to life than being in the neighborhood and the drug scene, the streets and the violence.”
Ron Price puts it bluntly: “Nothing will destroy these clubs.”
“I get a lot of respect because of my grandpa,” Andrew Thompson, P. Wee’s grandson and Defiant Ones member, explains with pride. “I just try to carry the legacy and stay positive with it. He got the people who were acting a mess to be good and to calm down on the bullshit they were doing. He got awards for being a part of the community.” While one-percenters are prevalent in the motorcycle world, the biggest shock to anyone outside the circle is how community-driven most clubs are.
The most basic but essential parts of any motorcycle club have always been your ride, the brotherhood and, most important, the freedom. Harley was at the top of the chain when it came to the “ride” people should aspire to.
Though the checklist is short, the items are non-negotiable. Chopped fenders, raked forks and a souped-up motor made you a man among men. Without the right credentials, you weren’t taken seriously. “As a culture, we trick our cars out,” says Tibbs. “I’ve never owned a car I didn’t put custom wheels on. Just like every motorcycle I’ve owned, it’s almost wearing sneakers with a suit, that’s what we do.” You either got with it or got out. In Soul on Bikes, Tobie Gene Levingston explains it clearly when speaking with a prospective member: “Man, you can’t get into the club with this Jap shit. You need to get yourself a Harley-Davidson. When you get one, come back and see us.” The mentality of Americana and all the power behind that concept was transferred into their bikes.
With the ideals and hopes of an America that thrived without color barriers or limits came the freedom associated with riding. “If you’ve ever had all your windows down in your car, now imagine you’re on something that has no surroundings, no windshield, and the breeze comes directly to your face. It gives you a freedom of being out there alone, like back in the cowboy days,” KW explains.
“Best freedom I ever had was my bike, man. By the time I put it into fourth gear, I felt like I could take on the world,” recalls an enthusiastic P. Wee. The universal theme among riders is freedom: the freedom of riding without limits, barriers, rules or agendas. It’s a stance that’s withstood all the other inequalities that life off the road may have served. This freedom, which most take for granted, is something motorcycle clubs embrace. It’s their credo, their mantra and their reason to ride. The workhorse has always been the motorcycle. As a symbol of an idealistic world, they served as a pure, unrelenting figure of revolution. Within the confines of an American community that might not have been ready for change, change and revolution was what they got.
Do you have an untold story about your experiences as a rider? Want to contribute pictures of your bike, club or a rally? Go to h-d.com/ironelite to upload and share. Your story could be chosen and be part of an exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum, debuting during Black History Month 2012.