OAKLAND — Tobie Gene Levingston, who founded the East Bay Dragons as the Bay Area’s first all-Black motorcycle club and one of the nation’s first, died Tuesday, July 7 of natural causes. He was 86.
Born June 30, 1934, in Lillie, Louisiana, Levingston was one of 10 children raised by sharecropper parents who moved to the Bay Area in the early 1950s, settling in East Oakland’s Brookfield Village neighborhood.
While work remained relatively plentiful in post-war Oakland’s factories and foundries, Levingston initially began a car club as a way to help keep his family out of harm’s way.
As a member put it last year in the run-up to the club’s 60th-anniversary celebration, back then young Black men could still quickly find themselves getting into trouble if they didn’t stay busy, and Levingston thought he and his brothers needed a hobby.
The club took up the “Dragons” name in 1958, before switching over to motorcycles, which were cheaper and drew less attention from police, as Levingston wrote in his classic memoir “Soul on Bikes: The East Bay Dragons MC and the Black Biker Set.”
Over more than six decades as club president, Levingston rode alongside the club’s members and rubbed shoulders with famous figures like the Hells Angels’ Sonny Barger and members of the Black Panthers. The club moved in and out of garages and warehouses before buying a hall in the 8700 block of then-East 14th Street in 1977.
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, as well as yearly Labor Day weekend fundraisers.
On Wednesday, the club shared news of Levingston’s passing and asked well-wishers to keep Levingston’s wife and children and club members in their prayers, saying: “Rest in Heaven, Pres.”
That reputation made Levingston’s club a pillar of cycling culture, regularly paid tribute to in fictionalized references, and by celebrities like former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, who shared a video clip of a recent clubhouse visit last week for his “Jay Leno’s Garage” CNBC show.
In a series of social-media posts Wednesday night, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf praised Levingston’s legacy.
“From always feeding the community and supporting generations of East Oaklanders, to hosting my very first Budget Town Hall as Mayor and proudly escorting Hammer and me in Warriors victory parades, the East Bay Dragons have been a constant source of service and pride for Oakland,” Schaaf said in part.
“Mr. Levingston built the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club on the values of community, family, and the tight bonds of brotherhood. He is an Oakland treasure that will be sorely missed. May he rest — and ride — in peace.”
He is survived by his wife Ernestine, his three brothers Jonas, Joe Louis and Vic, and his three daughters Billie Simmons, Debrah Giles and Angela Killingsworth.
Friends and family members are planning a viewing 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 24 at the East Bay Dragons clubhouse, 8731 International Blvd., in Oakland, and outdoor funeral services at 10 a.m. July 25, at Acts Full Gospel Church, 1034 66th Ave., in Oakland. He will be interred immediately after at Rolling Hills Memorial Park, 4100 Hilltop Drive, in Richmond. Flower arrangements may be sent to Acts Full Gospel Church the morning of the service.