Thursday, February 13, 2014

William B. Johnson, 1st African American Harley Davidson Dealer

William B. Johnson
William Johnson broke down barriers as both the first African American Harley-Davidson dealer, and as the first African American licensed to compete in national motorcycle racing events. Born in Baltimore in 1890, Johnson moved with his wife in about 1917 to Somers, N.Y. (about 60 miles north of New York City), and found work as a chauffeur and handyman. The couple later bought a house in town. William converted a small blacksmith shop on the property into a general repair garage. A reliable and skillful mechanic, Johnson did well for a time, but when the business declined, he decided to become a motorcycle dealer.

Though records don't pinpoint the exact year, Johnson signed on with Harley-Davidson sometime in the 1920s, operating Johnson's Harley-Davidson out of the converted blacksmith shop that would house the dealership for nearly 60 years. Jim Babchak, the author of a 2009 story about Johnson for American Iron magazine, first visited the dealership in 1969, when he was a teenager seeking parts for an old Panhead.

"Johnson's Harley-Davidson had the intimate feel and smell of a small-town motorcycle dealership," recalls Babchak. "Parts were hanging from the walls, bikes were stuffed into the showroom with little space to walk, and the parts books rested on a glass counter. The place was permeated with a glorious mixture of gas, oil, and exhaust fumes. If he wasn't in back working on a bike, Mr. Johnson was there to greet all who entered."

Hillclimb racing was beginning to boom in the 1920s, and a steep slope in Somers behind Ivandell Cemetery was an inviting venue. A deal was struck between the land owner and the American Motorcyclist Association to lease the site for a competition, on the condition that the local favorite, William Johnson, could compete. Like most of American society at the time, the AMA was segregated, but Johnson knew how to play the game - he simply told the AMA he was an American Indian, according to a story retold to Babchak by Pat Creamer, a Harley dealer in Brewster, N.Y. That was good enough for all involved until 1932, when Johnson was challenged by an official at an AMA National event that barred "colored" riders. Johnson proudly produced his AMA membership card, and then won the race. Johnson raced successfully well into his 40s at hillclimb events across New England.

Friendly and generous to a fault, Johnson maintained his small dealership through the cycles of the rural economy, the changing times, and the shifting population of the region.

"I enjoyed going to dealership because of Mr. Johnson's embracing personality," recounts Babchak, "and it was one of the few dealerships in my area that was not intimidating. It was open to all who rode, with no pretense or airs, and just a wonderful old rural dealership, steeped in history and regarded as a Somers landmark."

Johnson continued to work in the shop, assisted by his son, Nelson, until he was well past 80 years old. He died in 1985, at the age of 95, and Johnson's Harley-Davidson closed for good.