Buffalo Soldiers West Virginia
Part Two: “Ms. Stiletto” by Avery Lyons, Maxwell Shavers, and Rob Rago
Tonya Harris loves shoes.
“I don’t discriminate against shoes. I love sandals; I love boots; I love tennis shoes; I love heels; I love wedges. You can never discount the value of a good shoe.”
Harris’s passion for fashion earned her the road name ‘Ms. Stiletto’ from her husband, and she seems proud to wear the label.
“I live a champagne life on a water budget.”
A self-confessed tomboy, Harris grew up riding with her brother.
“I thought, ‘You gonna do it?’ Then I’m gonna do it, too.”
Now, even as Ms. Stiletto, she’s still one of the boys.
Buffalo Soldiers is unusual among motorcycle clubs for its gender equity membership policy; unlike “one-percenter” or outlaw clubs, women can be full members with voting rights, rather than just being an associate or “property of” an exclusively male club.
However, in order to become a full member, a candidate must be a licensed motorcycle rider; without a bike, service-oriented individuals are still welcomed as non-voting associate members.
Even though the club’s bylaws promote gender equity, a gender gap between male and female riders persists in the Charleston chapter.
“I wish there were more women in our organization that rode because some of the chapters have, say, 100 members, and they might have 20 women that ride. I love that,” Harris said.
In 2013, members from surrounding chapters in Virginia and Ohio visited Kanawha County to sponsor the hopeful future club. As a founding member, Harris helped to kickstart the Charleston chapter in search of an organization that represented people who looked like her. Six years on, that goal has yet to be completely realized.
Even though the club has many female associates, Harris is just one of two women who are full members.
“It’s nice to be out in a community and say, hey, I look like you. You look like me. You can do what I can do, or anybody else.”
Every Wednesday at the Harris’s house is family night. Biological family? Check. Chosen family? Stop on by. Harris’s clinical students without any local family? The more the merrier.
“It might be game day. It might be spa day. But we’re eating. It’s time for fellowship.”
Outside of her role with the club and her day job as a radiology technologist, Tonya says that it is family values that defines her the most.
“I usually meet with my local friends, or at least try to get with them, once a month, because you just never know what somebody is going through, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And so you just always want to allow time to say, ‘Hi, how are you? I love you. I’m thinking of you.’ That’s just who I am.”
On her days off work, Harris watches her grandson, Jaxon, or “Jax” as the other members call him.
At times, this involves bringing him along to community service events hosted by the Buffalo Soldiers, a practice she believes should start young. This year, Harris said Jax asked if he could keep his own candy and hand out other sweets at Charleston’s trick-or-beat, an annual community event that provides children with a safe environment to enjoy Halloween; every year before, he thought he had been giving away his own stash.
“The sooner they learn to start giving back to the community the more they’ll give back as an adult. It’ll just be ingrained in them,” she said. “He truly enjoys it. He has 20 million questions as to why everybody needs help… He is truly amazed and shocked at how many kids show up.”
Jaxon is a favorite at club events. Members consistently ask Tonya when the next time he’ll be at an event will be.
“That’s one reason that the original [national] founder created this organization, because he wanted it to be something that was centered around family. And whether it was okay to take your wife, mother, or your kids. Those are the types of activities that we have.”
And according to Tonya Harris, that’s wonderful.