Did You Know? William B. Johnson. The 1st African American Harley-Davidson Dealer.

William_B._Johnson1William was both the first African American Harley-Davidson dealer and the first African American licensed to compete in national motorcycle racing events. Johnson signed on with Harley-Davidson sometime in the 1920s, managing during nearly 60 years Johnson’s Harley-Davidson out of a converted blacksmith shop.

Because African Americans were not allowed into the American Motorcyclist Association, the organization that hosted the events, it is said that Johnson was only allowed to join and enter the competitions after he and die-hard fans declared that he was an American Indian.

Some of the first men of color to bond over Harley-Davidson motorcycles were soldiers riding in the name of their country. 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 at Harley-Davidson say.

This year, as Harley-Davidson celebrates 110 years, the contributions of African Americans to biking culture are being recognized. 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.

21 Responses to “Did You Know? William B. Johnson. The 1st African American Harley-Davidson Dealer.”

  1. 1 hk May 10th, 2013 at 8:51 am

    thank you for posting this cyril .

  2. 2 hk May 10th, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I hope this may spark more interest in the history of what african americans had contributed to the motorcycle industry from long ago ,even when disenfranchised the love of motorcycles remained and perservered .

    ben hardy ,cliff vaugh ,sugar bear ,etc …….. history is a wonderful thing when it shapes the future

  3. 3 Kirk Perry May 10th, 2013 at 10:33 am

    “Because African Americans were not allowed into the American Motorcyclist Association, the organization that hosted the events, it is said that Johnson was only allowed to join and enter the competitions after he and die-hard fans declared that he was an American Indian.”
    Fuck the AMA.

  4. 4 Tobby May 10th, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Kirk, that pretty well sums up America through the 1960’s. Racism was certainly not unique to the AMA, and the AMA of today does not resemble anything like it was back then.

    For more reading on influential African-Americans see Harley’s site (albeit sanitized a bit with some corporate spin):


  5. 5 VanityPrintz May 10th, 2013 at 11:45 am

    hk, man I’m with you all the way. Kirk…..Great Big Megga 🙂

  6. 6 Steelchoppin May 10th, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Excellent article! I hate bigotry…no matter how long ago it was. Stupid AMA!

  7. 7 hoyt May 10th, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    The shameful & pathetic irony of “The Land of the Free” just 50 years ago in this country must not be forgotten.

    Passive attitudes do not work against racism. History has shown that racism slowly became accepted in certain parts since the Civil War largely because too many passive people did not take a stand. All of those lives lost can rest easier again with these types of recognition.

  8. 8 Kroeter May 10th, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    During WWII, German POW’s were allowed to enjoy a Lena Horne concert that was off limits to black soldiers. After returning home from WWII, many black servicemen were lynched for the smallest infractions.

    Quite a testament to those who were able to endure through those decades in the North, as well as the South, to make themselves successful.

  9. 9 Kirk Perry May 10th, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Most of the good population are like blank potato-heads waiting for someone to stick-on some eyes, a nose and some ears. They’ll “go” with what’s most reasonable, (or whatever their friend is riding or building. Every shop knows this).

    Before today, only a few people controlled all the news. Now those handful of people are getting their family names and butts kicked, as all history gets re-written to truth by those still alive to report it. (i.e; derr Wikipedia).

    The AMA, if still solvent, should now focus on “All 2-Wheelers as a (voting) Nation”.

    “Ride Your Bike to Work Week” should be faced onto the potato-heads by the media we’re all glued to, T.V. and the internet. It should be a “National Week of Recognition” as we roll into the future, especially with the emergence of electric bikes and 3-wheelers.

    This site is read by everyone. “We”, include cyclist, surfers, skateboarders (thick as ants), hero’s, customers, legends, creeps, bands, lurkers, and pin-ups. That’s a voting-block doll-face.

    So lets act like one. “Chronic complaining” is the squeaking wheel that gets results AFTER a solution has been thoroughly prepared for the problem.

    The next time a critical election comes around, let’s all get together and vote one-way, on one issue, and see if we can make the *paper spin and scare the opposition with our union.

    * Where a 1/2″ sq. piece of paper is folded in quarters, then unfolded. A sewing needle is embedded in a base (cork or candles work), and the paper square is then place exactly in the center of the paper tent, so it can turn by a whisper. A drinking glass is placed over the perched needle to protect the air space.
    Two people then sit on either side of the glass and focus on one wing of the fold that’s closest to their eyeballs, and always thinking “clockwise”.
    Before or after two minutes the paper will begin to move. Do not freak out. Keep concentrating and the two of you can make it slowly spin. 🙂

  10. 10 Rick May 11th, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Whom was the first Asian? First Indian? First Mexican

    Point being ; does it matter. Way to go HD for playing the race card in the name of increased revenue

  11. 11 Biker Ron May 11th, 2013 at 7:37 am

    Where was his dealership?

  12. 12 Cyril Huze May 11th, 2013 at 10:39 am

    In Somers, New York.

  13. 13 Pabst Blue Rigid May 11th, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    @ Rick….”Way to go HD for playing the race card in the name of increased revenue” – really? With pride he ran an HD dealship in a time when segregation was nearly nationwide. your comment makes much sense!

  14. 14 Blackmax May 11th, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Hell yes, I knew about it, as did most of the folks of color
    who knew anything about the history of motorcycling !
    We knew who he was BEFORE the Motor Co decided it was in their best interests to cater to
    Blacks. Latinos & Women as their normal customer base (You know who you are)
    is aging, shrinking and dying off . We are finally glad the Mo-Co decided to recognize us and what we bring to the table. Hey, Rick, what are you afraid of? That you might learn something ???
    Rick and his ilk are shrinking in numbers everyday as more of us are stradling 2 wheels,
    attending more of the mainstream rallies and making our presence felt.
    If I had shown up to Strugis or any other major rally in the 60’s or early 70’s
    I might have been worried about my well being? Now, I’m just one of the crowd…
    There are still a lot of folks out there who feel disenfranchised and hence the seperate “Black Bike” week thing/events. But I believe in inclusion and that our history and builders belong right up there with Hollister, Ness, etc as reasons why we ALL ride !!!!
    And, yes for those of you who don;t know, I am a RIDER who just happens to be black !!!
    (And it should not matter what I ride, just as long as I ride, safely) !!!!

    As far as the AMA goes, they WERE of the same mindset as almost everybody else at that time.
    That’s no excuse, when they could’ve been a leader they continued to be mediocre and be a follower. I’m very glad the leadership of the AMA today is just a little more enlightened….

    Sorry Cyril, for the rant….
    When I see the kind of responses on this particlar subject

  15. 15 Blackmax May 11th, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Soryy if this is a duplicate :

    Hell Yes ! We knew who he was !!
    Anyone interested in the REAL history of motorcycling does !!!
    Just as everybody should know who REALLY built the legendary “Capitan America and Billy ” bikes.
    Or who Sugar Bear is and why he was not mentioned in ANY motorcycle publlication prior to the mid 80’s. Those were the days back then but this is now !!!!
    And the Mo-Co is finally givng people of color and women their due, because their survival depends on it !!! Guys like Rick kill me! Hey Rick what are you afraid of ?
    Learning something that may shake up your preconcived notions ???
    I believe in the fact that we ALL ride together as we shoud have all along.
    In the 60’s & early 70’s if I had shown up to Sturgis or any other major rally I might have been worried about my well being, now I’m just part of the crowd…..
    Ther are still a ot of folks who feel disenfrancised & hence why you have the “Black Bike” week type of events. But I think that Mr Johnson and all the rest belong with Hollister, etc as seminal events in the reasons whay we ALL ride !!!
    (And if you didn;t know, I’m am a RIDER, who jusy happens to be black)

    As far as the AMA goes, tes, they did what everybody else did back in those days.
    Instaed of taking a chance and being a leader, they decided to be mediocre and be a follower
    I’m glad that the cureent leadership is just a little more enlighted ….

  16. 16 Grey Beard May 11th, 2013 at 10:47 pm


    For me, I grew up in Bristol and Philly Pa. To see an African American on a Harley wasn’t no big deal. In the early 70’s around there, some members from the “Wheels of Soul” out of Philly rode up around Bristol. My buddy’s chrome exchange/chopper shop, one of his customers was an African American who was getting his ironhead chopped.
    If you check out some of them older decked out HD with a million lights, horns, antennas, and a ton of chrome do-dads, chances are it was owned by an African American. Back then we called them garbage barges.

  17. 17 hk May 12th, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    wow rick ,you are a class act .This is one article im sure of a million more of the first of anyone doing something after being marginalized .Why not just read it ,absorb it and move on .

    BTW you are the first person in this string of comments to irritate a bunch of people ……hey maybe he needs his own “first one ” article

  18. 18 Rodent May 12th, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I remember the blacks on their “Garbage Wagons” in the 60’s at Nathan’s Coney Island every rideable weekend. Those were the 6 volt Harley dressers with hundreds of incandescent bulbs installed on them. They were the forerunners to today’s craze with LEDS. They paved the way!

  19. 19 nicker May 15th, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    “….6 volt Harley dressers with hundreds of incandescent bulbs …”

    They must-a been magicians.
    There’s a 42FL out in the shop that can barely keep up with a Head-n-tail light……….. 🙂


  20. 20 nicker May 15th, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Seems to be some “posting-rights” inequality also……. ???


  21. 21 nicker May 15th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    That’s better………

    “…6 volt Harley dressers with hundreds of incandescent bulbs …”

    They must be magicians.
    There’s a 43Fl out in the shop that has trouble keeping up with just a head-n-tail light…. 🙂


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Cyril Huze