Oakland's First All-Black, All-Harley Biker Club

East Bay Dragons
East Bay Dragons

The way Tobie Gene Levingston remembers it, the 1950s were all about rock ‘n roll and cars—especially the latter. Cruising, customizing, and painting took up a lot of free time. Levingston, the son of a sharecropper who had moved West with his family from Louisiana, cherished his Chevy enough to start a car club, inviting his brothers and friends into the fold. They called themselves the East Bay Dragons and even stuck plates with their logo in the rear windows.

There was just one problem: the cars.

As Levingston recalled in his 2004 autobiography, Soul on Bikes, most families in the ‘50s couldn’t afford the luxury of having more than one vehicle. A member of a car club tinkering and drag-racing their home’s lone mode of transportation became less and less practical. So Levingston customized the club itself, turning it into an all-black, all-Harley-Davidson riding crew in 1959. After all, used motorcycles could be had for as little as $40, and were often “chopped,” or modified, to fit the rider’s preferences.

The Dragons weren’t the first African-American biker club. Many soldiers had returned from World War II needing an adrenaline rush, and bikes offered a reliable fix. Of course, getting ahold of the vehicles wasn't always easy: several dealers refused to sell to minorities. Still, enough men got their hands on motorcycles that by the time the Dragons really got started, several California groups had already shown off their patches on the streets. But the Dragons were a departure from the rest: In contrast to the straight-laced riders who rode “full dressers,” or bikes with windshields and saddle bags, the Dragons mandated members ride bare-boned, American-made Harleys.

They also didn’t shy away from trouble. But it wasn't the police that worried Levingston. (As he remembers it, African-Americans driving cars got more attention from the cops than those on two wheels.) It was the territorial issues with other motorcycle clubs that sparked the biggest aggravation. A white group dubbed the Black Crows spread word that they intended to steal Dragon bikes. One bloody brawl later, that talk got quieter. The Dragons rode where they pleased, and if someone didn’t like it, that was their problem.

“We might be peaceful one minute, ass kickers the next,” Levingston wrote. “A pack of black riders would freak the living daylights out of the neighboring towns, communities, and police departments. That was okay … Would a member help you fix your car or kick your [butt]? Try your luck and find out.”

Unlike the Chosen Few, which invited black and white riders alike, the Dragons kept their doors closed to other races. Levingston believed the community needed a place to exchange ideas and develop a bond. (His car club once had a white member, who had been a little too liberal with his use of offensive language; Levingston recalls he moved away before he was enlightened with someone’s fists.)

Despite the Dragons occupying the same Oakland real estate as the infamous Hell’s Angels, the clubs got along well. Levingston befriended Sonny Barger, president of the Angels; the two had a common rival in local police. Color was of less significance than the fact they were all bikers, a label that was quickly becoming demonized in the media.

While Barger had seen the inside of Folsom Prison on more than one occasion, Levingston was committed to keeping the Dragons out of a courtroom. He insisted all members be employed, and unlike some riders of the era, he refused to put the social club ahead of family. Once, when he caught wind of a bad element trying to get drugs to circulate within the group, he closed down the clubhouse until the offenders moved on. Other times, trouble found him: when the Black Panthers made radical political waves in the 1960s, the two leather-wearing groups were often confused with one another.

Over the years, the Dragons have kept afloat with dues, organized dances, and other events—though the club could never avoid the violence of motorcycle culture entirely. One member was shot and killed as recently as 2011. But the Dragons live on: in 2014, the Oakland City Council recognized the Dragons for their 55 years of promoting charitable causes and having a “long and fond record of service in the community.” Levingston, now 80, is still club president.

All images courtesy of the East Bay Dragons.

   

Virginia Woolf Calls D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce 'Overrated' in Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

James Joyce
James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever struggled to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses or one of D.H. Lawrence’s long-winded books. Virginia Woolf and several other well-respected writers of the 20th century had a few choice words for Joyce and Lawrence, labeling them the "most overrated" English writers in a recently rediscovered 1923 survey.

As Smithsonian reports, these thoughts were recorded in a journal that was passed around British literary circles that included Woolf and nine other writers in the early 20th century. Within the “literary burn book,” as Vox dubbed it, writers recorded their answers to a 39-question survey about their thoughts on popular writers of the time, both living and dead. For example, they were asked to choose the greatest literary genius of all time, as well as the author most likely to be read in 25 years’ time. (In response to the latter question, author and poet Hilaire Belloc simply answered, “Me.”)

Titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, the book eventually ended up in novelist Margaret Kennedy’s possession. It was recently rediscovered by her grandson, William Mackesy, who, along with his cousin, is one of the literary executors of Kennedy's estate.

“Within were pages of printed questions with 10 sets of handwritten answers dated between 1923 and 1927,” Mackesy explained in The Independent. “Then the names came into focus and our eyes popped. Here were Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, Stella Benson—and Virginia Woolf. And our granny.” It's unclear who originally wrote the survey.

In addition to taking jabs at Lawrence and Joyce, one unnamed respondent called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic. In response to a prompt to name the dead author whose character they most disliked, the participants name-dropped Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, Marcel Proust, and Lord Byron. Woolf, for her part, answered, “I like all dead men of letters.” (If the respondents had known about the misdeeds of Charles Dickens, he may have ended up on the list, as well.)

“It is interesting how perceptions change, especially how little mention there is of now-most-celebrated writers from that era,” Mackesy notes. This little activity wasn’t entirely petty, though. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, won the most votes for greatest literary genius. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, received one vote.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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