William 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.