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Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July August 2012
Harley-Davidson Pays Special Tribute To Trailblazing African-American Riders During Black History Month
By: Edith Billups
To celebrate Black History Month, The Harley-Davidson Motor Company honored key African-American riders and the contributions they have made to the culture of motorcycling, past and present.



A special exhibit at The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee featured stories of some of the most influential and industry-defining mavericks who blazed trails for the African-American riding community and the motorcycle industry, at large. The exhibit, titled Journey of the Iron Elite, ran in February.

Currently, Harley-Davidson is number one in sales to African-Americans, but it has been largely unknown how African-Americans have helped to shape Harley-Davidson as an iconic brand. The stories of African-Americans who have made their mark on the history of motorcycle culture include:
  • William B. Johnson, a successful businessman who broke color barriers in the 1920s and became the first African-American Harley-Davidson dealer.
  • Bessie Stringfield, a teen-aged gypsy rider and the first African-American woman to ride solo cross-country on a Harley-Davidson in the 1930s.
  • P. Wee, an influential motorcycle club leader who helped define the Black biker scene for more than 50 years since its beginnings in southern California.
  • Benny Hardy, a custom bike builder who helped to create the most famous motorcycle in the world, Captain America, rode by actor Peter Fonda in the movie Easy Rider, and
  • Sugar Bear, a Los Angeles-based custom bike builder, whose bike Gorjus is prominently featured at the exhibit’s entrance and whose bikes have been sought out by celebrities for their unique extended front ends and rockers.
According to John Comissiong, director of market outreach for Harley-Davidson, the idea for the exhibit came about because “African-Americans have had a defining impact on Harley-Davidson’s brand and culture, and our focus is to celebrate their contributions and highlight their stories in meaningful ways.”



He noted that Harley-Davidson’s Black History Month activities are part of a broader motor company initiative to document and preserve the rich history and heritage of African-American riding culture for years to come. “To help gather and feature more stories of African-American riders, the Iron Elite section of our website actively seeks and showcases African-American rider stories, motorcycle customization and legends,” said Comissiong. “For 2012, we also will launch a 3-part online video series that chronicles the journey of African-American riders as they discover the brotherhood, sisterhood and bond of riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles together.”

Comissiong made the comments at a breakfast that kicked off a three-day event for press that included a VIP tour of the African-American exhibit at the museum; a Motorcycle Boot Camp to learn the ins and outs of riding culture; a tour of the Harley-Davidson manufacturing plant; and a launch party at the museum where two new models, the Softail Slim and the Seventy-Two, were unveiled.

Among the invited guests were several African-Americans whose stories are told in the museum, including Sugar Bear, who left corporate America to become the most well known African-American custom designing bikes today; Ken Thomas, president of the National Association of Buffalo Soldiers & Troopers Motorcycle Club, the largest African-American biking club in the country; Sandra Goldie Sowers, an African-American motorcycle historian, who lives in Atlanta and who blogs about African-American riding culture.; and winners of the company’s Iron Elite contest.

According to Thomas, a retired Chicago police officer and director of security for the National Basketball Association, “I think the exhibit is a great idea in that it highlights African American riders and their contributions. It feels good that Harley-Davidson is recognizing and reaching out to this market. African-Americans have been riding bikes for years because in many cases, during World War II, African-Americans served as military police officers and couriers. When they returned from the war, many did not have the purchasing power to buy new Harleys, but they purchased used Harleys and customized them. Today, our club has over 5,000 bikers, and many are professional, single women who have the disposable income to buy bikes. The majority of our members ride Harleys.”



For Sugar Bear, whose company, Sugar Bear Choppers, has designed bikes for the likes of Gloadean White, Tim McGraw, Toby Keith and Ozzy Osbourne, and who was mentored by Benny Hardy, “The exhibit is important because until recently, as far as custom bikes were concerned, no one knew that we were involved. We have only recently been acknowledged by the mainstream motorcycle industry. Prior to that, because we weren’t written about in bike magazines, we weren’t known outside of our community.”

The designer noted that choppers mainly came out of Watts “and most people didn’t even know that Benny designed the Captain America bike that became the most recognized motorcycle in the world following the movie, Easy Rider. That became known in 2006 when I talked about that in a documentary on choppers on the Discovery Channel that was made by Jesse James.”

During the kickoff, guests were welcomed by Bill Davidson, great-grandson of one of the four founders and vice president of marketing for the museum, who told several poignant stories about the company’s founding and history. They also were shown a video titled “Brothers of the Bike,” where African Americans discussed their reasons for becoming motorcycle enthusiasts, including the freedom that comes with the sport and the camaraderie shared by club members.

Many commented on the thrill that one gets when having the wind touch their face and how riding is a way to escape one’s daily problems. Others noted that belonging to a club is akin to belonging to a support group when facing life’s challenges.

Thomas agreed with many of the comments and noted that, “I started the Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Club in 1993 because I wanted to create a club with a better image than the media portrayed—one in which people ride with a purpose. We participate in various charities, such as giving scholarships to seniors going to college. We give back to the community in other ways through sickle cell rides, breast cancer rides, food drives, etc…”

For some African American women attending the event, the feeling also was about freedom. Sowers, who belongs to an all female club out of L.A. that has eight members named the Real Deal, said that she has been riding since age17, “and as women we love the independence.“

Gwen Sheppard, an Iraq war veteran from Browndeer, WI, noted, “I’m a member of the American Legion riders, and when I get on a bike, it’s all about the freedom and not being confined by windows or a vehicle. I have complete control. I’m in a zone.”

Comissiong said that in addition to the museum exhibition, participating Harley-Davidson dealerships will host smaller displays throughout the year, “and we will continue to attend and support a variety of African American motorcycle events around the country such as Daytona Beach Bike Week; Atlantic Beach Bike Week; and National Bikers RoundUp in order to meet riders face-to-face and hear their stories.”

The Harley Davidson Museum has over 350 models of bikes, ranging from prototypes and concept vehicles from its inception in 1903 to the present. For more information, visit www.h-dmuseum.com. For more information on Harley-Davidson’s Iron Elite outreach to African Americans, visit. www.hd.com/ironelite.
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