Friday, June 29, 2012

ATLANTA'S 'BLACK STREAKS'

Contributor David LaMar Morrill recently brought my attention to the remarkable and nearly forgotten story of Afro-American Board Track Racers during the 'Teens, deep in the American South.  The prospect of turning up some new motorcycle history is deeply exciting, and I encouraged David to write up an article.  After researching this obscure tale, he delivers the story here:

The 'Other' Harley and Indian War
Two of Atlanta's 'Black Streaks' astride their Indian board track racers, in 1919
Beginning in the mid-Teens, factory racing teams from both Indian and Harley-Davidson fought a hard battle for dominance on the board and dirt tracks around the country.  Great riders like Gene Walker, Shrimp Burns, Otto Walker, and many others made their names riding for either the Indian 'Wigwam' or the Harley 'Wrecking Crew'. The bikes they rode were little more than bicycles, with powerful V twin engines, and no brakes. Motorcycle racing was a major spectator sport and drew tens of thousands of spectators across the country. 

In Atlanta, another group of racers sought fame and fortune, whose story today is virtually unknown; these black riders had colorful nicknames like Hall “Demon Wade” Ware, Horace “Midnight” Blanton, and “Bones the Outlaw,” who raced each other at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway from 1913 to 1924. They didn't have the latest factory racing bikes, and their racers were often cobbled together with obsolete parts from the scrap piles of the local Harley and Indian dealers. They were known as Atlanta’s 'Black Streaks' and while their races were covered by the national motorcycle press, the articles reflected the racial prejudice of the day, with a 1919 Motorcycling and Bicycling article titled “When Dinge Met Dinge in Georgia"; the text was even worse.
Lining up for the 1924 'Championship' race at Lakewood Speedway
 In 1913, black riders gathered at the Atlanta Motordrome, a two mile oval Board Track, to compete in a motorcycle race held for black racers.  This appears to be the only race of it's kind held at the Motordrome. No account of the race, or it's participants has been found. The only mention is found in a November 1913 article in Motorcycling and Bicycling magazine, announcing the Atlanta Motordrome's pending bankruptcy. The article stated the Bonita Theater Company of Atlanta, owners of the Motordrome, had filed for bankruptcy. It further stated:
This Motordrome earned an unsavory reputation by pulling off a race with negro riders, in defiance of F.A.M. regulations, thereby becoming outlawed as long as the present management exists.” As a result of the bankruptcy, the Motordrome closed.  It was later torn down, and is the current site of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Hall Ware, who rode as 'Demon Wade', aboard his Indian board track racer.  'The Grand Cullud Motorciccle Champeen of Jawja' [sic], as noted in a contemporary report.
Racing shifted to Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway in 1918, a one-mile dirt oval, and in June that year was held the “Grand Colored Motorcycle Championship Race.” The event drew large crowds from Atlanta’s black community, and wagers were often placed on the favorites. While the Harley and Indian factories had no involvement in these races, the local Harley and Indian dealers gave limited assistance to their chosen racers. They also  placed large wagers between themselves on the outcome of the race. In June of 1918 South Carolina racer Tom Reese, who called himself the “Champion of South Carolina”, arrived in Atlanta for the Championship. Reese’s manager began to brag that Reese could beat any Atlanta rider and was prepared to place a large cash wager to back up his claim. At the local Indian dealer, Hal “Demon Wade” Ware saw an opportunity. Already an accomplished local racer, Ware worked for the dealer as a mechanic. He convinced his boss, Nemo Lancaster, to lend him a competitive bike to race against Reese. While Lancaster recognized Ware’s talent, the rumor was he had a very large side bet with Reese’s manager. At the start of the race, Reese on a Harley-Davidson jumped out to an early lead. Reese’s manager was already looking forward to winning the wager. Ware, on the loaned Indian, soon caught the Carolina Champion, and passed him winning the race. Ware claimed the $150 first prize, and Lancaster collected on large side bet with Reese’s manager.
Horace 'Midnight' Blanton
The August 1919 race was another hard-fought battle, this time between 'Demon' Wade and 'Bones the Outlaw'. 'Midnight' Blanton won several of the preliminary races, and had a shot at winning the championship race. The night before the race, Atlanta board track racer Hammond Springs (who was white) helped Wade install Springs’ new Indian racing engine into Wade’s older Indian frame. The competitive engine allowed Wade the edge he needed to leave Blanton in his dust. On the final lap, he and Bones the Outlaw crossed the line in a tie. This required a rematch, which Wade won hands down, claiming the 1919 championship. The race for third place was battled by Sidney Donaldson (Indian) and Ernest Cox (HD).

Eventually, 'Bones the Outlaw' switched to racing automobiles, and 'Demon' Wade had sold his machine and moved north. For the 1924 races, 'Bones the Outlaw' made a demonstration run in his racing car, blasted around the dirt oval and putting on quite a show, narrowly avoiding a crash several times. In the motorcycle race, Horace Blanton had less competition, his two chief rivals having moved on, while his new rival proved to be Joe 'Read 'em and Weep' Reeder, riding a stock Indian Chief (probably his daily rider).  Blanton easily claimed the championship over a field of less experienced riders. 
Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, the 'Indianapolis of the South', as seen in the film 'Smokey and the Bandit'; the track was used until 1979
In November of 1924, the owners of the Lakewood Speedway (the Bonita Theater Company) filed for bankruptcy, with C.F. Morris the receiver. An article announcing the bankruptcy stated:“This motordrome which earned an unsavory reputation by pulling off a race with negro riders, in defiance of F.A.M. regulations, thereby becoming outlawed as long as the present management exists.”  With the track’s bankruptcy, the races came to an end.  Still, for eight years a group of black motorcycle racers created a unique story in the 'Jim Crow' South, and had a moment in the limelight.
A 1919 article in 'Motorcycling and Bicycling' magazine.  The racist language recalls the abuse heaped on 1899 World Champion bicyclist Marshall 'Major' Taylor throughout his career.  For insight, I highly recommend any of his biographies.

 Author’s Note: This article is based on period articles from the collection of author Stephen Wright of Morro Bay, CA. Without his assistance, this article would not have been possible.  c.2012 David Morrill 
[Editor's note:  Stephen Wright is author of the remarkable 'American Racer' books, essential reading!]

17 comments:

mp said...

Good article. Nice discovery

Hairy Larry said...

Very interesting article. Will have to check out Mr.Wrights publications.

Anonymous said...

Great piece of motorcycling history that few have ever known about. Great work David.
- Don Emde

Anonymous said...

Really good.Thanks!
Somer

Anonymous said...

Wow.. Great history here! Thanks for posting..

Greg L

Anonymous said...

If they suffered as much abuse as Major Taylor did while bicycle racing in America, they must of had some incredible tales to tell. Can't believe I never heard of this until now; thanks for sharing.

The Vintagent said...

For anyone who hasn't heard the Marshall 'Major' Taylor story; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Taylor
A champion bicycle racer, who broke the 'color barrier' in the US decades before Jackie Robinson...

Anonymous said...

Paul-I have a friend who has a photo of a young black guy on a board track racer. This picture came from the REVEREND Stuart MUNGER--I will try to get a copy to post --It is a great photo.
The Harley dealer in Atlanta in those days was Cunningham Harley Davidson-I wound up with a 2 cam FH race engine that came from that dealership. Cunningham sponsored quite a few racers in the earley days.
RL Jones

Canajun said...

Great bit of history. Would be nice to find out more, although I expect all the racers are now long gone and there wasn't much written down about their experiences.

The Vintagent said...

Canajun, you never know what's written down in some obscure local publication, or what families have albums of 'great uncle Horace' on a board track Indian.

Getting the word out will help the story to surface, much as the 'Black Chrome' exhibit in LA brought out the story of the Easy Rider bikes; it took several years, but eventually, the story emerged, and photographs, and supporting evidence from people who were there. Easier for the late 60s than the 1920s, true, but I reckon something is out there.

I have further questions too...about the track owners who snubbed 'no black' FAM (precursor to the AMA) rules to have races with black riders. Clearly, there were enough black motorcyclists to support racing, and enough fans to see them and justify the track time. I have a feeling this wasn't just a 'circus'.

Anonymous said...

@R.l., I'd like to see that photo. There wasn't a lot of information on these guys. Just a few annual articles on the championship race. For the most part, the included photos did not indentify the racers. I would like to find out more about these guys. If I can get the article up in the Atlanta area, someone might recognize a relative.

- David Morrill

Anonymous said...

HEY - Thanks for the great story --We looked at this picture for years and wondered where this guy was racing.
I know a little about the track in Atlanta. My good friend Bobby Pearce told me many stories about the Lakewood track. Her husband Clarence Pearce raced at this track in the old days. Mrs. Pearce was quite the motorcycle rider herself, and had asked Clarence if she could take his bike around the track one time. Clarence [Harley Rider] said certainly not -it was against the rules for women to be on the track--So Bobby-being the special gal she was, convinced one of Clarence's friends [INDIAN RIDER}to let her make a lap around the track to teach her husband a lesson. So she stuffed her hair up under a leather cap and proceeded to pilot this Indian around the track--After a few laps she had started to lap some of the slower riders, and run with some of the "Hot Shots". When she finally pulled in the pits -there was quite an uproar about who this new rider was --Well soon it was found out that there had been a lady on the track.
The judges came down to Clarence and said this was absolutely against the rules and they suspended Clarence from the race for this infraction.She was a great lady and taught me quite a bit about the early days of racing in the south.
I will post a picture of her when I finished bringing her husband's hillclimber back to life --we rolled it out -and there was a little tear in her eye and then she just threw her leg over the seat and said well let's hear it run--Dedicated to my good friend "BOBBY PEARCE"

R.l.Jones

Anonymous said...

One reason most people don't know much about black people racing motorcycles are that blacks were not allowed to race in the AMA. As in other sports, baseball especially, blacks were prohibited from the sport and had to go form their own venues, organizations etc. Go find an old AMA rule book from the 20s and 30s and not only were blacks not allowed to be AMA members, it was the very first rule in the book. Rule #1: members must be white. No slam to the current organization, but "back in the day," that's how it was.
- Don Emde

Anonymous said...

I was sitting on the hillside at Barber Motorsports last weekend watching the Superbike races. There were several African American fathers in my area, who brought their sons to watch the races. I hope thet will learn that their racing history runs back to the early days of the sport! These guys laid the foundation for Bubba Stewart and many others.

I hope I can find some relatives of the few guys mentioned, and find out more about them. I learned lots more about Gene Walker from his relatives, after that article went up. These guys are the earliest black racers I've found. R.L. told me about a group of black flat trackers in the 50s. I don't remember any black club or AMA Pro roadracers from my days in the 70s/80s, but I only raced in the south. You had a much longer career and raced across the country and overseas.

-David Morrill

Anonymous said...

Don't ask me why, but one thing I collect are old AMA and other rule books, so I have a lot of them and somewhere in the 60s I think it was the rule disappeared. I guess that matches to the days of JFK and Lyndon Johnson and the changes in America at the time.

The early AMA leadership were masters of controlling their messages. Not only were blacks "non-existent," but if you see a story about races in those days, they would list Harleys and Indians, but the guys who rode Nortons, there was just a blank line shown for their motorcycle.

- Don Emde

Boardtrackfan said...

Thanks for posting this. One of the coolest things I've read in a long time. Hopefully more info and photos come to light.

Anonymous said...

David, can you email me?
I have some information you might like about early B'ham Harley shops.

Lee 'Onion' George
aredandgold at msn dot com