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An Unsung African American Hero

SOMERS, N.Y. - William B. Johnson holds a unique position in black history and in the town of Somers. He was the first registered African-American Harley-Davidson dealer in the United States.

Kimberly Thomas, an archivist at the Harley-Davidson organization, describes Johnson as “legendary in motorcycle circles.” Thomas flew in from Milwaukee to “do some detective work,” as Grace Zimmermann of the Historical Society expressed it. Harley-Davidson was aware of Johnson’s significance but wanted more facts.

“It says a lot about Somers and Westchester County that this man had a business here,” Thomas says. “He was truly a minority. But it was not an issue of who he was. He was an honorable man and highly respected. It shows, in this small pocket, the way America was meant to be.”

As soon as Johnson opened his Harley-Davidson shop in the 1920s bikers were buzzing into Somers from all over. According to American Iron Magazine,  “Hillclimb racing was beginning to boom in the 20s, and a steep slope in Somers behind Ivandell Cemetery was an inviting venue.”

Thomas adds, “We’re getting first-person accounts of those Sunday races. It was a big thing. It was truly a matter of skill. They went about 100 mph. If you made the hills on Sunday it proved you had a good bike. You could sell for a good price on Monday.”

American Iron says that when Johnson joined the American Motorcyclist Association, “like most American society at the time, it was segregated, but Johnson knew how to play the game -- he simply told the AMA he was an American Indian.”

Ultimately, the steep hills behind the cemetery became Heritage Hills and Johnson’s dealership, just down the street from the Elephant Hotel, is now TJ’s Automotive. Few people remember Johnson, and even fewer are aware of his significance, although several of his relatives still live in Somers.

Johnson died in 1985, at the age of 95. The garage’s new owner called the family to tell them there was a lot of memorabilia there. Johnson’s grandson, Michael, gathered it up and delivered it to the Somers Historical Society.

“We got it all,” said Zimmermann. “We found photos and tools. A motorcycle suit, a leather jacket, a leather bow tie. He wanted us to take the cash register too, but we don’t have a lot of space.”

The Somers Historical Society is lending its Johnson memorabilia to the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, to be displayed during February Black History Month in Johnson’s honor.

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