[Words: David Morrill]

Beginning in the mid-Teens, factory racing teams from Indian, Harley-Davidson, and Excelsior 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.

“Bones the Outlaw” (left), Horace “Midnight” Blanton (right)
with their Indian Racers – Atlanta 1924

In Atlanta, another group of racers sought fame and fortune, whose story today is virtually unknown; these black riders had colorful nicknames like Hall “Demon Wade” Ware, Horace “Midnight” Blanton, and “Bones the Outlaw,” who raced each other at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway from 1913 to 1924. They didn’t have the latest factory racing bikes, and their racers were often cobbled together with obsolete parts from the scrap piles of local Harley and Indian 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, such as a 1919 Motorcycling and Bicycling article titled “When Dinge Met Dinge in Georgia”; the text was even worse.

The Atlanta Speedway, designed in 1909 by Jack Prince, and finance by Asa Candler, the founder of Coca-Cola

In 1909, Coca Cola founder Asa Candler opened the Atlanta Speedway on what 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 appeared in an Atlanta Constitution article concerning events held at the Speedway on Labor Day, 1913, by the ” Atlanta Colored Labor Day Association.” The race featured a black automobile racer, “Hard Luck” Bill Jones, who had recently switched to racing motorcycles. The race results appeared in a later Constitution article on Jones; John Sims on an Indian was the winner.

Hall ‘Demon Wade’ Ware on his successful Indian racer [Motorcycling and Bicycling magazine]
In May 1913, Jack Prince came to Atlanta to build a board track for motorcycle and 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 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.” From the track’s 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 banked 1/4 mile circular board track, in front of large crowds of enthusiastic fans.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 “Dealers Condemn Atlanta’s Colored Races” (Motorcycling magazine).

 

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 take place at the Motordrome.

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, but sadly, that history has been lost). The Atlanta race was postponed twice due 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. The race featuring black riders took place at the Motordrome on afternoon of October 28, 1913, and 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.

Black rider lined up for the 1924 ‘Championship’ race at Lakewood Speedway

The Lakewood Speedway, one-mile dirt oval, opened south of the city in 1917, and immediately began running motorcycle and auto races. The track owners revived the racing series 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 bets were placed on the favorite riders. While the Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior factories had no involvement in these races, the local 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 photograph (was standing with his employer Harry Glenn) within 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. 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 Tom 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, and Reese’s manager expected to win 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.

Horace “Midnight” Blanton, the 1924 Champion

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.  But 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 Hall Wade’s bike was unloaded, the motor was covered. This gave rise to rumors that Wade had another special racing engine, which was a reasonable supposition, as Wade was close to his former employer, Harry Glenn –  by then an Indian factory representative. 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’d held since 1915. The remainder of the the day’s races were canceled due to the lack of competition.  By the 1924 race, ‘Bones the Outlaw’ had switched to racing automobiles, and ‘Demon Ware’ 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 a crash 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.

Indian factory representative Harry Glenn’s business card, autographed by Hall ‘Demon Ware’ Wade [Scott Bashaw Collection]
In November of 1924, the owners of the Lakewood Speedway (the Bonita Theater Company) filed for bankruptcy, with C.F. Morris the receiver. An article announcing the bankruptcy stated:“This motordrome which 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.”  With the track’s bankruptcy, the ‘Black Streak’ races came to an end. Still, for eight years a group of black motorcycle racers created a unique story in the ‘Jim Crow’ South, and had a moment in the limelight.

[Sources: Armando Cecili Collection, Atlanta Constitution, Chris Price – Archive Moto and ‘Georgia Motorcycle History’,  ‘Motorcycle Racers’ – Ebony Magazine Volume # 10 – 1955,  Harley-Davidson.com, Hockenheim Museum Collection, Mike Bell Collection,  Motorcycling and Bicycling,  Scott Bashaw Collection,  Stephen Wright]
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