Harley-Davidson celebrates it's 110th Anniversary this year. For Harley owners, the brand is much more than a machine; it's a connection to kindred spirits, a rolling piece of history, and a way of life.
A key part of the anniversary celebration is the "Freedom Jacket Ride." This jacket, originally worn by H-D Chief of Marketing, Mark-Hans Richer on a ride across the Tibetan plateau, became a symbol of all that Harley stands for after a local man painted the Chinese character for "freedom" on the jacket's sleeve. Since then the jacket has toured all over the world, worn by different riders to different events, from Brazil to Brunswick, Georgia.
Harley-Davidson has been beefing up their outreach to African-Americans, Latinos, women and young people. Hollywood director F. Gary Gray was tapped to wear the Freedom Jacket on a ride from Atlanta to Daytona Beach for Bike Week. He brought along four friends, actor Malcolm Jamal Warner, photographer Corey Whitted, and Pastor Joe Basile. "It's cool to share the same passion with a group of guys who've had the chance to wear this jacket," reflects Gray. "The trip that this jacket has gone on; it's gonna end up in the museum and it already has a following. The jacket is more famous than me!" jokes Gray.
African-Americans have a long history riding with Harley-Davidson. Figures like William B. Johnson, Bessie Stringfield, and Benny Hardy are all a part of the Harley mystique. Back in the 1920's, Johnson was the first African-American licensed by the AMA to race, as well as being the first African-American to own a Harley dealership. Stringfield, a Black woman riding solo, made eight long distance trips across the dirt roads that connected the lower 48 states in the 1930's and 40's. Hardy was the designer and builder of the bikes used in the film, Easy Rider. The "Captain America" bike built for that movie is one of the most iconic bikes in history, and both choppers were built in the style that Black bikers rode at the time.
F. Gary Gray is particularly impressed by the way bikers are united in their passion. "I love that the passion is universal. We just stopped over at a rest stop and talked to three riders from the Deep South and we were all just like young boys talking about our toys. There was no difference in our thoughts and our excitement for our bikes, and that's what it's all about. When you ride your bike it just seems like it's the great equalizer, and no matter what you were taught, no matter what your politics, it just seems like your passion and your enthusiasm for your bike just supersedes all those things. I like it. No matter where you're from, you really plug into a certain consciousness and you can see that look in a person's eyes when they ride. Anything that can bring people together, I think that's a good thing. Harley does that."
–Article and photos by André Chung