Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Atlanta's Black Streak Racers - Episode #1

By: David L. Morrill
@ Deadly Dave's Blog

Updated: October 16, 2014


Atlanta's Black Streak Racers
                            
The Other Harley-Davidson vs Indian War

"Bones the Outlaw" (left),  Horace "Midnight" Blanton (right) 
with their Indian Racers - Atlanta 1924
A while back I heard a rumor there was a group of black board track motorcycle racers from Atlanta, GA. I checked around and found one photo from 1919, but no other information. I began contacting my board track racing sources, but no one had heard about them. One day I received package from Stephen Wright of Morro Bay, CA. with a few period articles from his collection. With those articles, I was able to put together the article below about this little known piece of early motorcycle racing history. This article would not have been possible with Stephen Wright's assistance.



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.  
Hall "Demon Wade" Ware - 1918 Champion
Beginning In 1913, a another group of motorcycle racers sought fame and fortune on the racetracks around Atlanta, Georgia. These black riders had colorful nicknames like, "Hard Luck" Bill Jones, Hall “Demon Wade” Ware, Horace “Midnight” Blanton, and “Bones the Outlaw,” and  raced each other first at the Atlanta Speedway, and later at the Motordrome board track,  as well as the Lakewood Speedway. They did not have the latest factory racing bikes, and their racers were often cobbled together with obsolete parts from the scrap piles of the local motorcycle 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.

In 1909, Coca Cola founder Asa Candler opened the Atlanta Speedway in an area, which is now the site of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The two mile oval track featured an asphalt and gravel racing surface, which was modeled after the recently opened Indianapolis Speedway. Motorcycle races for white riders were held there beginning in November 1909.  

The first mention of a motorcycle race for black riders, comes in an Atlanta Constitution article on events held at the Speedway on Labor Day 1913 by the " Atlanta Colored Labor Day Association."


Atlanta Constitution _ August 31, 1913
The race featured a black automobile racer, "Hard Luck" Bill Jones, who had recently switched to racing motorcycles. The only race results appeared in a later Constitution article on Jones. John Sims on an Indian was the winner.


Atlanta Constitution - September 2, 1913

In May 1913, Jack Prince came to Atlanta to build a board track for motorcycle racing. The 1/4 mile circular track, named the Atlanta Motordrome, was built on the site of the old  Fairgrounds at Jackson Street NE and Old Wheat Street close to Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Jack Prince
Jack Prince built several of these early circular  tracks, which featured a nearly vertical racing surface of rough sawn lumber. They were often referred to as "Saucer Tracks."


Atlanta Motordrome Ad - 1913
From the tracks opening, the Motordrome races featured the top white riders in Atlanta. Stars like Harry Glenn, Nemo Lancaster, Tex Richards, and more fought hard for wins, on the 56 degree banned 1/4 mile circular board track, in front of large crowds of enthusiastic fans.

Atlanta's Harry Glenn - Atlanta Motordrome 1913
Chris Price@Archive Moto

That changed in August 1913, when word got out that the Motordrome was planning a race for black riders. On September 5, 1913, the planned race was the subject of a full page highly critical article under the headline was "Dealers Condemn Atlanta's Colored Races" in Motorcycling magazine.

Motorcycling - September 5, 1913
Scott Bashaw Collection
The article quoted local Atlanta Harley-Davidson dealer Gus Castle, and Thor /Jefferson dealer Johnny Aiken. Both dealers statements reflected the attitude of most whites in Jim Crow Atlanta. Gus Castle stated:
"I think the negro racing game is a substantial benefit, as it drives the last nail in the coffin of motorcycle track racing in Atlanta, and that's a blessing of no small importance."
 Aiken's stated:
"Except that it will popularize motorcycling among Negros and in that way cheapen the sport in the eyes of white men."
The article went on to state that there were about forty black motorcyclists in Atlanta, and that the white dealers refused to sell them new motorcycles.
After reading the article in Motorcycling,  Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.) Chairman John L. Donovan wired the track operators stating the Atlanta Motordrome would be "outlawed" and their race sanctions withdrawn "as the F.A.M. does not allow colored men as members."
Despite the threats from Donovan, on October 19, 1913, an article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper announcing a race featuring black riders would be taking place at the Motordrome.
Atlanta Constitution October 19, 1913
The article states "The men who ride are all experienced and have ridden motorcycles on board tracks before." That statement seems to confirm that black riders rode on Motordrome style board tracks in other cities. Sadly, that history has been lost.
Atlanta Constitution October 21, 1913

Atlanta Constitution October 23, 1913
The race was postponed twice do to rain. Weather was a constant problem at the Atlanta Motordrome. The riders could not safely race on the steep wooden banking, when it was wet, and races were often postponed several times.

Atlanta Constitution October 26, 1913

Atlanta Constitution October 28, 1913
A pre-race article on racer "Hard Luck" Bill Jones appeared in the Atlanta Constitution the day before the race.



Atlanta Constitution October 27, 1913

The race featuring black riders took place at the Motordrome on afternoon of October 28, 1913. The race featured black riders Bill Jones, and Lloyd Brown of Atlanta, along with the Wilson brothers from New Orleans, and Ben Griggs and Willie McCabe of Chattanooga. The Atlanta Constitution did not cover the race, and the results are unknown.
Less than a month after the race, an article appeared in Motorcycling World and Bicycling Review that stated the 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.” 

The Motordrome reopened the following year under new management. There is no record of any further races featuring black riders at the track. With the opening of the Lakewood Speedway, motorcycle racing shifted away from the Motordrome. 



Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway
"The Indy of the South"
The one mile dirt oval Lakewood Speedway opened south of the city in 1917 and began running motorcycle races. The track owners revived the races for black riders, which they billed as the Grand Colored Motorcycle Championship Race. " A black South Carolina racer named Tom Reese, who called himself the Champion of South Carolina, arrived in Atlanta for the June race." Reese’s manager began to brag that Reese could beat any Atlanta rider and he was prepared to place a large cash wager to back up his claim.

The event drew large crowds from Atlanta’s black community, and wagers were placed on the favorite riders. While the Harley-Davidson and Indian factories had no involvement in these races, the local white Harley-Davidson and Indian dealers gave limited assistance to their chosen racers. They also often placed large wagers between themselves on the outcome of the race.

On May 31, 1919, Bones the Outlaw appeared in a pre-race article for the 1919 Southern Dirt Track Championship, which featured top white riders from around the south, including Birmingham's Gene Walker , and Atlanta's Nemo Lancaster. Bones was standing with his employer Harry Glenn.

Atlanta Constitution - May 31, 1919






 At the local Indian dealer, Hall “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.  
The race in August 1919, was another hard fought battle 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 held on June 5, 1922, proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Once again several racers from around the south arrived, prepared to race. When Hal Wade's bike was unloaded, the motor was covered. This gave rise to rumors, Wade had another special racing engine. Wade was close to  his former employer, Harry Glenn, who was now and Indian factory representative. 


Harry Glenn business card autographed by Hall Ware Wade
Scott  Bashaw Collection
When race time rolled around, only Horace Blanton came to the starting line, to face Wade. Wade won two five mile races, defending the Southern Champion title he had held since 1915. The remainder of the the day's races were canceled due to the lack of competition.



Motorcycle & Bicycle Illustrated - June 15, 1922






Horace "Midnight" Blanton
1924 Champion
By the 1924 race, 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, blasting around the dirt oval and putting on quite a show, narrowly avoiding crashing several times. In the motorcycle race, Horace Blanton had no real competition, his two chief rivals having moved on, and he easily claimed the championship over a field of less experienced riders.


The 1924 race appears to have been the final race for the black racers, and the story of the Atlanta Black Streak racers eventually faded into history. Still, for seven years a group of black motorcycle created a unique story in the Jim Crow south, and had their moment in the lime light.

Author's Note:
This 1919 Motorcycling and Bicycling Magazine article about Atlanta's Black Streak Racers uses language that reflects the racist attitudes of the time. It is included for historical context, and to show the prejudice these young men endured during their racing careers.

Motorcycling and Bicycling - August 27, 1919

This early teens photo of an African American racer #17 lined up with white racers was recently shared on Facebook. There was no information on the location, and is most certainly is not related to the Atlanta racers. It may very well predate the the Labor Day 1913 race for black riders held at the Atlanta Speedway.

Early Harley-Davidson Mounted Racers ca. 1912
Armando Cecili Collection


Epilogue: October 16, 2014

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Stephen Wright. For those who did not know of Steve, he was one of the absolute experts on early American motorcycling. He wrote several books on early motorcycling, and helped many writers, like myself, to share those stories.


Stephen Wright
Stephen's book, American Racer 1900-1939 is the definitive study on early American motorcycle racing. He provided much of the research, this story is based on, and I will forever be indebted to him. Steve will be deeply missed, and this story is dedicated to his memory.



Sources:

Armando Cecili Collection

Atlanta Constitution

Chris Price@Archive Moto

Georgia Motorcycle History - by Chris Price

Motorcycle Racers - Ebony Magazine Volume # 10 - 1955

Harley-Davidson.com

Mike Bell Collection

Motorcycling and Bicycling

Scott Bashaw Collection

Stephen Wright

The Vintagent - http://thevintagent.blogspot.com/

Wikipedia.org










3 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading about these pioneering riders. Thanks for uncovering this history.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you Larry. I'm glad I was able to share their story!

    ReplyDelete