East Bay Dragons: The 1950's All-Black Biker Club
"While Rosa Parks took her historic bus ride, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers stood bravely for equal rights, the East Bay Dragons MC risked life and limb during days when a black man riding a Harley chopper was a revolutionary act." - East Bay Dragons
The East Bay Dragons motorcycling club was founded by Tobie Gene Levingston in the sixties, when a black man riding a Harley Davidson was unheard of.
Tobie Gene Levingston was born to a sharecropper father who made the migration west, and eventually settled with his family in Brookfield Village, Oakland (Tribune). Levingston became a sharecropper like his father, but left to work in an Oakland metal foundry in the mid 1950's. Soon after, he formed a car club, which was pretty common in the Bay at the time. Within a few years, his group evolved into an MC, the most accessible way for Tobie to help "he and his brothers to stay out of trouble," as Dragons Member Picasso describes in an interview with East Bay Times. Bikes were more affordable, easier to store, and worked better as a communal hobby.
But the all-black motorcycle club drew attention.
"The Black Panthers and The East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club were sometimes mistaken for each other by law enforcement." - Martinez Tribune
The East Bay Dragons originated before the Black Panthers, but the Panther Party sought advice and support from East Bay Dragons when they were just forming in Oakland (Tribune). Their respective headquarters were mere blocks away from each other. Police and white outlaws alike weren't concerned with who was who, so much as smothering the growing black power in the area. East Bay Dragons were hassled, robbed, and terrorized for riding bikes and organizing while black.
As more light is shed on the realities of white supremacy, we also learn more about the black organizations who have been the target of police, the FBI, and country. The grave of Chairman Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, assassinated by the FBI in 1969, is shot annually by police men on the anniversary of his death. East Bay Dragons have been foundational for todays motorcycling culture through their tumultuous beginnings, in ways we can't acknowledge if we don't know the history.
East Bay Dragons, an all-black, all-Harley MC, put neon choppers and black-organized power in the playbook.
"Black bikers originated a lot of the modifications that later become popular," says East Bay Dragons' Picasso (O’Donoghue). To this day, Harley Davidson takes inspiration from the creativity of the patriot riders of the first all-black MCs like the Dragons, who rode on colorful, customized choppers and wore the original yellow, red and green dragon vests with patches and "legalize abortions" pins.
While there's an excitement and celebrity factor to the East Bay Dragons, members protect and honor each other through a code of respect, which is essential to membership, much like any other MC. When Dragons Member Picasso rode with East Bay Dragons for the first time, they traveled from the Bay to San Fransisco night club, Old City Nights. Leaving the club, they were met by San Fransisco PD, lined up outside with "shot guns and helmets" (O’Donoghue). They eventually road home to the East Bay, over 100 Harleys strong.
Member Melvin Shadrick went from driving tanks in Vietnam to trucks post-war, eventually finding relief from his PTSD in the brotherhood of the East Bay Dragons, as told in his interview with the East Bay Times. When the men ride down the highway, marching, two by two, like how Melvin did in the military, they're structured by mutuality, "support," "Don't build me down, build me up...I'm in control of his fate and he's in control of mine" (O’Donoghue).
"The East Bay Dragons built a reputation as family men who owned homes, cars and had steady jobs, supported each other with skill-networking and contributed to regular charity drives, “love runs,” Thanksgiving-turkey donations, and Christmas family-adoption and gift-giving" -eastbaytimes
The relationship between East Bay Dragons and Oakland is a give and take. The community protects the Dragons, and the members take care of the community. The East Bay Dragons motorcycling club are urban folk heroes, and as gentrification plows through the Bay Area, the Dragons plan to stay exactly as they are, riding two by two.
O’Donoghue, Liam. “‘Respect the Patch’: How Oakland’s Oldest Black Motorcycle Club Survived Nearly 60 Years.” Eastbayyesterday.com, East Bay Yesterday, 14 Dec. 2018, eastbayyesterday.com/episodes/respect-the-patch/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Tribune-Admin. “Obituary: Tobie Gene Levingston (1934-2020).” Martinez Tribune, 11 July 2020, martineztribune.com/2020/07/10/obituary-tobie-gene-levingston-1934-2020%EF%BB%BF/.