Conquering the hill, and much more

'Wild Bill' Johnson

(Editor’s note: In conjunction with its special exhibition, A Century of the American Motorcycle, the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland has provided this story about William “Wild Bill” Johnson and his American Triumph.)

Having been born in Maryland in 1890, young William B. “Wild Bill” Johnson spent his formative years beneath the institutionalized restrictions known as the “Jim Crow” laws, where racial segregation was enforced in many states until 1965.

By the 1920s, Johnson was married and he and his wife were employed as domestic servants by a Baltimore family who eventually moved to Somers, New York. Chauffeuring gave Johnson a good foundation in automobile repair, so when the head of his employer’s family died, he was able to open his own service garage to make ends meet. 

Johnson at his shop

Johnson also became fascinated by motorcycles during this period. When the auto repair business declined, he opened his own motorcycle dealership in an old blacksmith shop located on his residential property. The dealership remained active and a local landmark for the next 60 years.

Motorcycle racing, particularly hillclimbing, became Johnson’s focus. Natural talent and a series of victories brought him to the attention of the growing Harley-Davidson company, which awarded him an exclusive dealership. It is widely accepted that Johnson’s was the first African-American-owned Harley dealership in the US.

However, even the sport of motorcycling could not escape the blemish of segregation. The sanctioning body for racing, the American Motorcycle Association prohibited granting racing licenses to people of color. Johnson and his friends convinced them that he was Native American, and he became instrumental in securing a property in Somers, New York, that was perfect for AMA-sanctioned hillclimbs. He went on to dominate the sport in the following two decades.

Johnson on his motorcycle

Johnson’s path to victory on the racecourse was by no means without difficulty or sacrifice, such as the occasion when his bike went out of control and he lost six teeth in a collision with his handlebars. Undeterred, he was back racing in just three weeks.

Because of his engaging, warm personality, “Wild Bill” was able to brush aside endemic prejudices, gaining widespread acceptance and admiration in the racing world. His dealership became a gathering spot for enthusiasts regardless of ethnicity, and even after he retired from the sport in his forties, the pilgrimage continued. 

Although he put his gloves and goggles aside, William rode actively until age 82, and was happy to regale visitors to his shop with stories of hillclimbing decades earlier. William B. Johnson passed away in 1985, age 95.

Johnson became one of the pioneers in breaking the restrictions of prejudice in sport, long before Jackie Robinson made his appearance in major league baseball. His quiet demeanor, unquenchable competitiveness, and welcoming attitude shattered whatever walls were placed before him. 

Interestingly, it was during Johnson’s ascendancy in racing that Black motorcycle riders developed a dedication to Harley-Davidson as their ride of choice; a statistic which lasts to this day.

“Wild Bill” Johnson’s legacy is a life well-lived, never having backed down from challenges, and embracing people regardless of ethnicity. We can all learn from his marvelous example.