Moving through the Los Gypsies Nation clubhouse is like a short lesson in Black history.
Its walls are adorned with photos of club members, scenes from motorcycle rides all over North America, not to mention memorabilia and vinyl records. Herron Preston, a handsome 64-year-old man with long dreads, acts as a guide.
“This is William B. Johnson, and he owned the first African American Harley Davidson dealership, and he did it in the 1920s,” said Preston, Los Gypsies’ founder. “He wanted to race (bikes), and they said, ‘No, you have to do a shift.’ Harley Davidson (eventually) gave him a dealership.”
He keeps going. There are photos of Clifford Vaughs and Ben Hardy. They built custom choppers, including the famous motorcycles for the movie “Easy Rider.”
There are also some important pieces from the East Bay Dragons, the Oakland, Calif.-based Black motorcycle group that Los Gypsies embodies and honours. There is a photo of Tobie Gene Levingston, the Dragons’ founder, and a letter from the Dragons giving Los Gypsies their blessing.
History, Harleys, Black faces and spaces. Founded about a decade ago, Los Gypsies Nation is the largest motorcycle social group with an exclusively Black membership in Canada. They are a 14-member unit that rides only customized Harleys, bikes that have taken each member years to build. There is also an associated women’s group, the Gypsie Queens.
Preston walks across the driveway, opens the garage door and lifts the covers off his bikes, unveiling two intricate pieces of art. “This is called an American IronHorse,” he said, pointing to one of the custom choppers with a light, orange seat. Its leather is smooth, and its stitching is worked into a pattern that forms into flames on the seat.
“He has a big racing engine on him,” Preston said. He points to his other bike. “He has the same thing and they’re fast, and they’re hard to ride. If don’t know how to ride a motorcycle, you won’t (mess) with this.”
Changing the story
A combined love of Harleys and its ties to Black motorcycle history of the past is just the beginning of what Los Gypsies is about. Its members want to defy stereotypes and show younger generations of Black men that everything is possible for them. The group’s website notes its composed of artists, lawyers, musicians, hairdressers, law enforcement officers and, “above all, fathers and husbands.”
The identities of Los Gypsies’ members, with the exception of Preston, as well as the location of their clubhouse, are being kept confidential to protect them from outlaw motorcycle clubs who don’t like their vision. In this story, we use the nicknames they are given when they join the group.
These brothers are nothing like those outlaw clubs — or any motorcycle club (known as MCs). They’re not criminals and they are not looking for trouble. They’re looking for the opposite: connection and growth.
“We’re at a motorcycle show, and all the criminal clubs got kicked out of it and we’re still in it,” said Preston, whose nickname is Krome. “One of the criminal clubs came to us and asked, ‘Don’t you guys have criminals in your club?’ And I said, ‘No. This is a black MC, most black MCs don’t have criminals in their club.’ They don’t.”
In Black motorcycle culture, there are huge events called ‘roundups.’ Virtually every American state has one each year. Black families, some with their RVs, and motorcycle groups come together for these vast social events that take place over three to four days. Attendance can number in the hundreds of thousands. Preston said they are nothing like other motorcycle rallies, like the famous annual one in Sturgis, South Dakota, where you always hear stories about fights, excessive drinking and rowdiness among its half-a-million attendees. “I wanted to tell everybody that Los Gypsies is nothing like those white dudes,” Preston said. “We’ve kind of changed the whole narrative.”
Creating a family
Members of Los Gypsies are tight knit. They’re like family more than anything, Preston said. “What we do is feed off each other and how can we make our bikes better. The only competition we have here is whose bikes look the coolest.”
Speaking to some of its members, it’s clear that Preston has set a tone. Each of them was brought into Los Gypsies after a lengthy process that included a “hang around” at the clubhouse. They all share the same ethos.
“The momentum of this club, I’ve seen it start with Krome building a place for people of colour to come to,” said Ice, a 55-year-old who has known Preston for about three decades. “That’s the first thing. A place for you and him to escape so to speak. Or, to take a break from the house, the wife, the kids. You don’t have a man cave in your place? This is the man cave.”
But, if you do stay for too long, Preston will kick you out and tell you to go spend time with your family. “You abuse it, you will lose it. That is what I like about this club; the education, the camaraderie, the creativity with the bikes, the travel,” said Ice. “I’ll tell you, when you cross a border and you see and meet these Black clubs, and are at these events, and these meets, and these bike shows and these barbecues, you’ll understand it’s a brotherhood.”
It’s also about connecting different generations of Black men – young and old – to give them a place to destress, share stories and build opportunities – and Harleys.
“I’ve been riding three quarters of my life and I’ve been riding since I moved to Toronto,” said Fast Eddie, who at 33 is the youngest member of the group and joined several years ago. “I’ve always hung out with either a mixed variety of people on sport bikes or vintage bikes. And it just wasn’t the same mindset that I have.
“I still love sport bikes, I still love vintage bikes, but I put everything into that (Harley). It’s like it’s never done.”
The thrill of building a bike is constant, but Fast Eddie and the rest of the crew understand that there needs to be balance. “That’s part of it. We all do something for work, with our families. So, at the end of the day, family always comes first,” he said.
Family comes first. And, as Los Gypsies Nation wait for the pandemic to end so they can come together again, a filmmaker is planning to create a documentary about Preston and Los Gypsies’ presence in Canada. It’s a story that hasn’t been told.
“I remember a guy contacted me from Florida and he says, ‘The only thing I know about Canada is the rapper Drake and you. I know nothing about Canada,’” said Preston, thinking that Los Gypsies Nation are on the right track. While Americans understand the social group and what it is trying to do, there is also doubt. “Black Americans see you and they think maybe it’s a one-hit wonder. They don’t see longevity or legacy because nothing like that’s ever been done,” said Preston.
Los Gypsies Nation may just prove them wrong.
Los Gypsies Nation has a list “Ten Commandments,” noted on its website, that members must follow. Among them are that you must be employed, ride your own American made motorcycle – which has to be 800 CC’s or over – be at least 25 years or older, not have a criminal record and cannot belong to any other motorcycle club or organization. More information about Los Gypsies can be found at losgypsiesnation.com.