February 8


The legendary William “Wild Bill” Johnson, early racer and Harley-Davidson dealer his details are a little sketchy, but many believe Wild Bill to be the first black man to get an AMA membership, back in the 1920s when it was still an exclusively white club.

As a mechanic, racer, and business man he was definitely the first African American to own a Harley-Davidson Dealership. He was born in 1890, died in 1985, rode Harleys until he was 82, and ran his shop until the day he died.

Wild Bill won fame early on as a hill climber. Its often said that the Crotona Motorcycle Club wanted to hold an AMA sanctioned hill climb in Somers, N.Y., where Mr. Johnson lived and had a shop. The owner of the property agreed to let them use the land if Wild Bill could compete, and a deal was struck. Some say in order to get an AMA card, or compete at some events, he had to claim to be an American Indian, but he did whatever it took to race and win.

William competed in hill climbs up until about WWII. After that point, he ran a successful Harley-Davidson dealership out of what was once a blacksmith shop until the 1980s. He only stopped riding at the recreational level after a fall left him without the use of his arms at age 82. At age 95 he passed away, some say he was actually at his shop. He had spent the majority of his life in that building so it is a fitting way to close the book on his career. A remembrance in the AMA magazine with more details is here.

In the recent Harley and the Davidsons miniseries a fictionalized version of Wild Bill Johnson had a small part, but was racing flat track not hill climb. The character seems to be more of an mixture of Mr. Johnson and a later flat track racer named Leroy “Buster” Payne. Buster broke the color barrier in AMA Grand National Flat Track/Road Racing, but that wasn’t until 1952. Until the mid-1950s black riders were almost all outlaws, racing in non-AMA sanctioned events.


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