The National Bikers Roundup is the largest annual rally of its kind — one that is organized by African American motorcycle clubs. It was founded in 1977 with about 50 riders. Now, it draws around 30,000. This year the rally descended on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
Motorcycles of every make and variety, from the smaller sports bikes to the bigger motor trikes, from Yamahas to the ever-popular Harley Davidsons, were on display and in attendance. Gino (who wanted to go by his biker nickname for this story) is with the Chicago chapter of the Dirty Dozen Motorcycle Club.
Gino was on the planning committee and helped organize the dozens of vendors who served everything from fried southern food to "Black Lives Matter" shirts during the 5-day event. He said the fairgrounds made an ideal venue — while certain areas were jam-packed with bikes, tents, and RVs, there was still space to spare. He also said the event is open to bikers and enthusiasts, regardless of identity or affiliation.
Gino talked about the charity work his motorcycle club does, a common activity for such groups. "We have a drive we do every year, 'Toys in the Hood.' In November we start collecting toys for Christmas," he said. To him, being in a motorcycle club is no different than being in a "knitting club." He pointed out a booth where Bern Nadette Stanis took photos with fans. Stanis is best known for her role as Thelma on the 70’s sitcom Good Times. She was there to sell some of her books, one of which details her experience with her mother having Alzheimer's.
Stanis pointed out that in attendance there were people of various races, ages and genders. "People think it's a 'gangy' thing, but it's not. There's wonderful little groups. Little old ladies have their own (motorcycle clubs.) It's too cute," said Stanis.
Relaxing in the shade behind her is a biker who goes by Cool Metal. He's from the Washington DC area and is president of the mother chapter of the Flaming Knights. That club was founded by Leroy Bolden in Connecticut in 1968. Bolden was into charity, he earned the moniker of "Robin Hood on a motorcycle" by the local newspaper. He was busted by the FBI in 1988 for drug-related crimes and later died in prison. It's a reminder that it can be hard to untangle some of the unsavory ties of what being in the biker subculture can mean.
Cool Metal started riding 13 years ago, long after his club's founder went to prison. He tells me off-the-record how to discern who to look out for based on the patches on their jacket — as well as who holds more weight in the hierarchy of their club. "If you come out and disrespect their patch, depending on what their patch says, it means a lot," said Cool Metal.
For him, this lifestyle is about what many others also say: "Freedom." He also said the main event for him when it comes to these Roundups is the journey — the nearly 700 miles of open road it took to get to Springfield on his Harley.
The Roundup will change venues as it does every year. It's headed to Mississippi for 2019. Other than the messages on the importance of charitable giving and camaraderie regardless of race and identity, Gino, my gracious chaperone of this year's event, has one parting note: "People need to start seeing motorcycles. These people have families just like you."