OAKLAND — Willie Harper still remembers the first time he saw the East Bay Dragons — then an emerging motorcycle club — roll through the streets of West Oakland.
It was around 1960. Four Dragons rode by on matching black-framed Harley Davidson choppers — so called because they had been stripped of any unnecessary parts, brought down to the bare frame with only the tank, headlight and motor. The bikes’ shiny chrome finish stood out against bright paint, each a different color. The men riding them had on polished boots and Levi jackets, blue jean pants and matching striped motorcycle helmets, Harper said.
“They were all sharp, real clean looking,” Harper remembers. “Only white boys had those types of bikes back then, and not in a motorcycle set. It was really powerful.”
the club, which this weekend celebrated its 60th year, has since become one of Oakland’s most iconic cultural exports, one recognized around the world. It was the first all-black motorcycle club in the Bay Area and one of the first in the country, emerging at a time when a black man riding a motorcycle was seen by some as an inflammatory act.
But the Dragons endured through six decades not because of some outlaw image, said Joe Louis, aka “Pappa Joe,” Levingston, a founding member and brother to Tobie Gene Levingston, the club’s creator. It survived because of the deep roots the club has in the community, its focus on family and the tight bonds of brotherhood.
“We’re like family to each other,” said Levingston, who’s in his 70s. “When you get the patch, it means you’re a real Dragon. You’re in a brotherhood for life.”
Levingston and his four brothers were born in Louisiana to a sharecropper father who made the migration West, along with thousands of other black American families, in the 1950s. At the time, West Oakland’s Seventh Street corridor was still a bustling commercial strip, dotted with jazz clubs and black-owned businesses buzzing with customers from Oakland’s Army base. East Oakland was full of families who worked in the nearby metal foundries and packing plants, and the Levingston family settled in Brookfield Village.
Though industrial jobs were plentiful, young black men could still quickly find themselves getting into trouble if they didn’t stay busy, Harper said. And Tobie Gene Levingston thought he and his brothers needed a hobby.
Oakland was all rock ‘n roll and chromed-out cars at the time, Tobie Gene Levingston wrote in his memoir, “Soul on Bikes: The East Bay Dragons MC and the Black Biker Set.” So, he decided to start a car club, and the Dragons were born. Joe Louis Levingston would later add “East Bay” to the name, creating the green dragon logo with red lettering set atop a gold backdrop.
A year later, they switched to motorcycles, which were cheaper, more accessible and didn’t draw as much attention from the police, Tobie Gene Levingston wrote. Dealers at the time wouldn’t sell Harleys to black customers, Levingston wrote, so they would buy them used. They’d often find them in people’s garages or under houses, Harper said.
Harper, the third longest-serving member of the Dragons, first showed up at the group’s clubhouse, which was then across the street from a barbecue restaurant where the members used to hang, with a Honda before being told to come back with a Harley. He did, only to have several members drive him back home and dismantle the bike in his garage, telling him to come back again when he could put it back together, he said.
Harper was dismayed, he said, until Tobie Gene Levingston showed up and told him to come by his garage where they would put it back together. That was 1964. And Harper has been a member of the club since.
It was in this way of building bikes together that the group fostered a sense of community, said Liam O’Donoghue, a local historian and host of the podcast, East Bay Yesterday. He interviewed two Dragons for an episode in December called “Respect the Patch: How Oakland’s Oldest Black Motorcycle Club Survived Nearly 60 Years.”
“They literally built the community together, one bike at a time,” he said. “And that’s why they were so tight. It gave these guys a sense of accomplishment and something they could really bond over.”
Being a pillar of the community is inseparable from membership in the club, said Ray Nelson, one of the club’s youngest members who is also a third-generation cousin to the Levingstons. The club regularly participates in charity rides, holds block parties and donates supplies to schools. It hosts annual turkey giveaways for Thanksgiving and “adopts” several families for Christmas, buying gifts and delivering them in person on Christmas Eve.
Nelson grew up idolizing the Dragons, he said, watching them roll en mass to his grandmother’s house, popping wheelies and burning rubber down the street. But it wasn’t just the bikes, he said. Toby Gene and Joe Louis Levingston both had jobs, as well as cars and houses and families, he said.
“They took care of themselves and their families at the same time,” Nelson said.
In fact, everyone in the club had a job and skills they could bring to the table. It’s why Nelson knows the club will endure for another 60 years.
“That’s how this clubhouse got built and why it will stick around,” he said. “Everyone has something to offer.”