By all accounts, William Butler Johnson was a model servant. He and his wife, Anna, worked happily for the Paulsen family – first in Baltimore, Maryland; later in Somers, West Chester County, New York – for many years. William was the chauffer; Anna maintained the Paulsen home. When Mr. Paulsen died, they lost their jobs. This unfortunate occurrence, history would show, was ultimately to their great benefit.
By then William and Anna had established themselves as respected members of the Somers community. With the help of some friends in high places, they were able to purchase a home, along with the former blacksmith shop behind it. Johnson converted the shop to a garage and soon gained a reputation as “a most reliable, honest, and skillful mechanic.”
Along with his business, Johnson also developed a keen interest in motorcycles and racing. Hill climbing was just coming into its own and he soon proved himself a fearless, natural talent. When the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) inquired about a piece of property called Somers Hill, as a site for hill-climb competitions, Johnson used his influence with the owner to help the deal go through. The owner would lease the property, but only if Johnson was allowed to participate in the races; at the time, AMA policy prohibited non-white competitors in sanctioned races. The AMA relented, Johnson broke the color barrier, and was soon ranked among the top climbers, noted for his natural ability on the toughest courses.
The sport was not without challenges, however, even for Johnson. During a race in the late 1930s, Johnson lost several teeth when his motorcycle reared back, and the handlebar struck him in the mouth. Many said the accident would have seen lesser men hang up their puttees, but Johnson was soon back in the saddle.
As Johnson’s garage business decreased, he turned to dealing Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the early to mid-’20s making him the first African-American Harley-Davidson dealer known to date. According to Johnson’s friend, Piet Boonstra, “Johnson loved the sport, loved motorcycles and loved people. He was a genuine motorcyclist in every fiber of his being, and there wasn’t a motorcyclist for miles around who didn’t know and like him.” He was reported to refuse to sell a motorcycle to someone he felt was not serious about the sport or not prepared to handle a large bike. By caring more for the rider than the money, he earned the admiration of riders and non-riders alike.
Johnson was also known as a sharp dresser and very conscious of his appearance – which is why a lump on the back of his neck, the result of many unsuccessful climbs, always bothered him. Doctors told him to never allow anyone to remove it. However, after being taken to a New York City hospital after slipping on an icy driveway at age 82, a physician convinced him to have the lump removed. Tragically, whether from the accident itself or complications from the operation, Johnson lost the use of his arms as a result.
Despite this new challenge, Johnson maintained his dealership by moving into a room at his shop. Even without the use of his arms, he could still listen to a motorcycle, determine what was wrong, and advise which tools to use to fix it. According to Somers residents, people made special trips to visit the man who had introduced them to motorcycling or mentored them to be responsible and courteous riders. They didn’t come because they wanted something; they came to spend time with a friend.
In 1985, at the age of 95, William B. Johnson died quietly at his shop. For years following, riders continued to drop by the shop to inquire about him. Residents say that with each pronouncement of his death, the reaction of the inquirer expressed the feeling he or she had lost a friend.
William B. Johnson did not set out to break any barriers, he was simply an industrious man who wanted to work and provide for his family. He wanted to enjoy his interests, motorcycles and motorcycle racing. He wanted to enjoy the relationships he developed with his community, customers, and fellow riders. Most of all, he wanted what most people want: to live his life – which he did to the fullest.