The Buffalo Soldiers of West Virginia

Part One: “Oz”

Photo by Maxwell Shavers | Buffalo Soldier members “Oz” and “Wolfman Blk” direct traffic at the Charleston Veteran’s Day parade .

When Azim Smith left the Marines, he was looking for a group of bikers to share the road with. After he couldn’t join one, he helped to start one.

Photo by Maxwell Shavers

The Buffalo Soldiers of Charleston, WV is not your typical motorcycle club. First, the women who ride with them enjoy full membership, including voting rights. Second, the objective of their club isn’t to claim territory or compete with other clubs, but rather to educate and serve their local community.

Third, they are a club of black men and women. In Appalachia.

The National Association of Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club (Buffalo Soldiers M.C.) pays homage to the historic 9th and 10th all-black cavalry regiments that served on the Western frontier after the Civil War.

In those days, freed slaves looking for life after freedom often joined the military in search of meaningful work, but because the troops were segregated prior to World War II, the black troops were given more dangerous assignments with worse equipment and older horses, without receiving the same recognition as their white counterparts. According to their website, the objective of their namesake motorcycle club is “to educate those that are unfamiliar with the racism, sacrifices and hardships” that the Buffalo Soldiers suffered, an often-neglected topic of U.S. history. They hope that through community service, education, and mentorship they can “motivate [youth] to become better citizens and leaders of tomorrow.”

“Life happens and sometimes the government and the states, for some reason, don’t have the funds to make everything right,” said Oz, who has served as the chapter’s president since 2018. “So the help and support, not just the money, but the caring, has to come from nonprofit organizations or people that want to contribute.”

Oz is one of many former service members attracted to the club which pays tribute to historic black veterans. The original club was started by a retired Chicago police-officer, Ken “Dream Maker” Thomas, in the early 1990’s with some law-enforcement friends, and the tradition grew from there.

Photo by Rob Rago | “Oz” and “Wolfman Blk” help 103-year-old World War II veteran Tazwell Saunders walk to his car.

A public servant through the Social Security Administration by day, Oz shares his love for riding, what he calls “wind therapy,” with the community by teaching motorcycle safety courses on the weekend. Members of his club, even those who already knew how to ride, have taken his class and advocate for everyone to become educated on how to ride and share the road with bikers more safely.

Photos by Maxwell Shavers

As the third whitest state in America, with black West Virginians making up only 3.5 percent of the population, the mountain state may not seem like an obvious location for such a group. But the Charleston club operates in a city that has five times the proportion of black residents compared to the state at-large.

Photo by Maxwell Shavers | Gretta Hairston converses with independent riders who rode with them in the Veteran’s Day parade.

More than a group of people who share a hobby or even a service organization, Oz says that the Buffalo Soldiers as an organization gives black West Virginian riders an identity to rally around that hasn’t existed before.

“I didn’t wake up one morning and think WV needs a black motorcycle club,” said Oz, “Do I feel like there was a need for a black motorcycle club here? Yes, because unfortunately the other motorcycle clubs weren’t accepting black riders.”

Photo by Maxwell Shavers | “Oz” rides his bike to the to the destination where he will be instructing locals on bike safety.

As a returned veteran seeking a new start and a group of riding buddies, local clubs would let him join on group rides and see him as peer when they were on the road together. However, a formal membership invitation was never extended to him, because, according to Oz, they “accepted black riders; they just didn’t accept black riders into their clubs.”

“Even in 2019, if I wanted to join one of these other motorcycle clubs they wouldn’t accept me because of the color of my skin,” Oz said. “Is that a form of racism? Yes. Is that against the law? No.”

According to a 2011 publication by the Anti-Defamation League, there is a growing link between outlaw motorcycle gangs and white supremacists. This can be attributed to an increase in recruitment among the two groups, an overlap of white supremacist and outlaw motorcycle gang subcultures, and the emergence of explicitly white supremacist biker gangs in recent years.

A 2014 article from the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine warns emergency department employees of the “strong links between the respective cultures of outlaw bikers and white supremacists.”

Rather than fight the traditions of prejudice that ruled over the mainstream motorcycle club culture in 2013, Oz and a few other black riders he knew decided to begin a tradition of their own through the Buffalo Soldiers.

Photo by Rob Rago

“Believe it or not, motorcycles bring people together,” said Oz. “It’s a hobby that becomes a lifestyle when you’re looking for a fraternity.”