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. 

  • African Mami

    Perveted Alchemist, baby where you at?! They honoring us right hurr!!!! We need to take our Harley out on a dusty adventure.

  • Lyn

    Wow. This is soo awesome. I love that this is covering a demographic(s) (black/women) that people don’t usually associate with badass motorcycle riders!

  • Tonton Michel

    This is great to know, I owned a 1998 VFR 800, and than a 1996 CBR 1000F, great bikes. Never owned a Harley always saw them as a old guy thing, now that I am old I want one, lol.

  • BrooklynZoe

    I remember reading about Bessie Stringfield. When she rode across the nation she often had to sleep on her bike because she wasn’t allowed in the hotels. My uncle is into motorcycles and so is my fiance, he has plans on building a chopper. A friend and I use to joke about getting a motorcycle crew together and calling ourselves S.O.B( Sistas On Bikes) lol

  • bluebird

    Awesome article. As a long time bike enthusiast, I love reading and meeting black bikers serious about riding, and actively participating in this exciting hobby. Thank you for covering this little known group.

  • Perverted Alchemist

    Got any earplugs, though? Harleys tend to be a little loud, LMAO!!!!

    I’m not surprised that Harley Davisdon wouldshed a little light on Black Harley riders- this isn’t the first time they have done so. A Harley is nice to have- that is if you can afford one…

  • SF

    This article is proof of the diversity within African American History! Thanks!

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  • thomas smith

    Harly never wanted Black folks and does not now, they just re trying to cover their as ses as folks look at their anti Black policys.
    the same as the car industry, GM example; Cadillac rarely if ever shows Blacks driving them
    but you will see a bald headed / emasculated light brown Black man driving a chevolet

  • thomas smith

    you know like i do that harley is not that interested in black riders, have you ever sen a harley ad with a black rider?

  • Perverted Alchemist

    Hey, Thomas Smith…come here for a second. I got a little something to show you:

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