History and Harleys: Buffalo Thunder teaches black kids that, with hard work, they can live high on a Hog

History and Harleys: Buffalo Thunder teaches black kids that, with hard work, they can live high on a Hog


May 31st 2014 | From the print edition

AS WELL he might, the young skateboarder looked startled as he rounded the African-American civil war memorial in Washington, DC and met a crowd of black motorcycle riders being addressed by a brigadier general. Sentry-straight in his blue and gold uniform, the general was leading a remembrance ceremony on May 25th, the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend. He spoke of the more than 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union in the civil war, and of the debt that he owed them as an officer and African-American. To one side sat a group of grandmotherly ladies in 19th-century dress, lace parasols aloft. In front stood nearly 1,000 members of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, from a dozen states. Several sported striped riding-breeches, spurred boots and Stetson hats, in honour of black cavalry regiments raised after the civil war to help settle the West, overcoming hostile white settlers, harsh conditions and short rations as they escorted wagon trains, carved roads from desert plains and fought American Indians. The Cheyenne first nicknamed the black troops “Buffalo” warriors, it is said, in double homage to their toughness and their curly hair.

Buffalo biker, in the heart of America

Today’s Buffalo riders are a formidable bunch, too. Many wore patches and medal ribbons on their leather waistcoats, recording wars in which they or their loved-ones had fought (a woman displayed a faded patch reading: “My Kid is in Iraq Kicking Butt”). Several wore the crests of police departments in which they now serve, or the names of churches where they minister. Their vast, sofa-saddled motorcycles filled the avenue behind them. Taking all this in, the teenager hopped from his skateboard, tucked it under an arm and loped past his elders, eyes down.

His meekness was not surprising. Impressing youngsters—and especially black boys in neighbourhoods with few positive male role models—has been a mission of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club since its founding in 1993 by a Chicago policeman. Back in the days of “Easy Rider” and turf wars between outlaw gangs, the idea of bikers as role models would have seemed outlandish. But something happened to large, loud all-American motorbikes: they became respectable. Buying a chrome-trimmed Harley-Davidson became a way for greying baby-boomers to play at youthful rebellion, driving sales for years (a growing market exists for motor-trikes, for boomers who now struggle to hold a two-wheeler upright). In some circles big bikes have become symbols of conservative defiance: for a heartland lover-of-liberty, what better than a gas-guzzling Hog, ideally ridden without a helmet, to give nanny-state liberals heartburn?

Yet not all conservative bikers are the same. May 25th saw two motorcycle rallies in Washington, both steeped in patriotic pride. The larger and better-known was the Rolling Thunder rally, involving hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, rumbling from the Pentagon to a park near the Vietnam veterans’ memorial. Rolling Thunder blends remembrance with protest (it is officially a “First Amendment demonstration”, asserting the right of citizens to assemble and demand redress from the government). Though many bikers ride to remember friends, family or all who died in war, Rolling Thunder was founded in 1987 to advance a specific crackpot belief: that successive Republican and Democratic administrations have concealed evidence that American captives are being held alive in South-East Asia. Even now, many believe this. And fresh anger was injected into this year’s rally by revelations about abuses at government clinics for military veterans.

The day’s other bike rally was Buffalo Thunder, running from the Maryland suburbs through mostly-black neighbourhoods to the African-American civil war memorial. Buffalo Thunder is not angry at all, though its values are conservative in their own way. The Memorial weekend rally, like the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club as a whole, is the creation of black professionals. It started in 2003 with just 65 bikes, whose riders worried that their forefathers’ history “gets buried downtown”, as one of the day’s co-hosts put it. It is organised by a Maryland club chapter whose members include military folk, lawyers, police officers and doctors. Detroit’s chapter boasts lawyers, police and a judge. Anyone convicted of a felony is barred: youngsters need to see that success is possible without turning to crime, explained an Ohio rider nicknamed “Four Wars” after serving in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice).

Club chapters often adopt schools, using gleaming, rumbling bikes to catch children’s attention, concentrating on those between seven and 14 or so, before they grow deaf to grown-ups bearing advice. “We can’t wait on the government. We’ve got to do this, because we’ve lost a generation already,” says Greg Ward, chaplain of the Detroit chapter.

Many Maryland members grew up in rough bits of Washington, before joining other black professionals in suburbs outside the capital. They make a point of heading back to the city when mentoring kids, among other good deeds. They explain that education, work and—above all—the capacity to delay gratification enabled them to buy $35,000 Harleys. That works better than abstract sermonising, says Donald Thigpen, an organiser of Buffalo Thunder: “They know these bikes are very expensive, and nobody gave them to us.” Girls are not ignored. If bikes are not their thing, members tell the story of Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as a man to join an early Buffalo regiment.

Today’s Buffalo riders are not naive about the snares and hurdles facing their children and grandchildren. Indeed the civil war memorial—a half-block from U Street, in the historic heart of black Washington—is seeking funds to repair bullet damage, after a gun battle in December between unknown adversaries. If history buffs on bikes can offer the young a dollop of aspiration and some sage advice, wish them luck.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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