Bessie Stringfield, the first black woman to ride solo coast-to-coast.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of traveling to Milwaukee, WI to tour the Harley Davidson Museum and learn about Black biker culture.

In honor of Black History Month, Harley Davidson put together a special exhibit of black biker memorabilia to showcase a side of biker culture very few are aware of. Although Harleys are synonymous with rebel bikers, the history of African American motorcycle enthusiasts is long and diverse.

Over the course of the trip I learned about many of the men and women who proudly ride their “iron horses” and how black folks are putting their own spin on motorcycle riding.

Since its inception in 1903, Harley Davidson has worked hard to service the needs of its riders. While other motorcycle companies focused on growing their business at home, one of Harley Davidson’s founders, Arthur Davidson, thought globally, making sure that the company had dealerships across the world. By the 1920s, Harley Davidson had dealerships in 67 countries and on continental Africa and boasted a dealership owned by William B. Johnson, a black man in New York.

Many of the bikers I spoke with, including Goldie Sowers, one of the most prominent black women on the scene, explained that riding their bikes is the ultimate expression of freedom.

This idea—that bikes represent freedom and expression—was echoed time and time again, and it’s an ideal that Harley Davidson fully embraces. It is because of this, the company is honoring the tradition of Black bikers who have often customized their bikes to fit their needs while leaving a lasting print on the brand.

Because preserving our stories is important, Harley Davidson launched “Iron Elite” in 2010 in order to collect and share stories of black bikers. Featuring the history of some of the most prominent bikers, including William B. Johnson, Harley’s first black dealership owner; Bessie Stringfield, the first black female biker to ride solo across the country; and Ben Hardy, whose custom bikes lit up the screen in Easy Rider and Captain America, “Iron Elite” sheds light on another aspect of black culture that barely gets its due.

Do you ride motorcycles? Check out Harley Davidson’s site, Iron Elite, for more information on black biker culture and history. 

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