Suns Set

The president's gone, but Denver's oldest black biker club keeps on rolling.

No one in City Park had ever seen anything like Alvin Maxie. In the summer of 1970, fresh from a twelve-year stint in the U.S. Army, he came rolling through town on a green British motorcycle, wearing knee-high moccasins and a Davy Crockett-style cap.

Other black bikers hung out in the park, but none of them had Maxie's style.

Sam "Sugar" Holmes was one of those bikers. He'd grown up in Denver, rolled with an otherwise white club for a while in the '60s, gone into the Air Force himself for five years. He and Maxie quickly bonded.

 
 
Alvin Maxie posed for the camera a year before his 
death.
Alvin Maxie posed for the camera a year before his death.

"One thing we had in common was motorcycles," Sugar recalls. "We didn't want no part of society. We wasn't radical or nothing like that, trying to change the government. We just wanted to be left alone."

Society didn't want any part of them, either.

Whether Maxie, Sugar and other black bikers were tooling down 16th Street, riding through City Park or heading down the open highway, they could count on being harassed by the law. Sugar remembers frequent pull-overs and hassling over helmets and speed limits.

"In a way, the police organized us," he says.

But being young, black and organized was a complicated -- even dangerous -- thing in the early '70s, a local Black Panther warned them.

The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies were keeping a close eye on black organizations across the country. Another eye was on the lookout for biker groups, like the Hells Angels, whose outlaw ways Hunter S. Thompson had chronicled a few years earlier.

Despite the warnings, Maxie, Sugar, ten other black men in their twenties and a single white dude named Bob formed the Suns of Darkness motorcycle club in November 1971. The thirteen bikers linked together like the chain on their flag, which also featured a bat and a skull.

"We illuminate the dark, we brighten it up, so we became the Suns of Darkness," Sugar explains.


Alvin Maxie was born in Louisiana. His father wasn't around, and his mother died when he was just two years old, so he was raised by his grandmother. Although Maxie also had some Cherokee and Creole blood, he mostly identified as a black man. He was just sixteen when he joined the Army.

The Army sent him to Germany, where he learned to speak the language fluently and developed an admiration for the sharp, crisp uniforms once worn by Nazis.

Maxie came to Colorado for the first time in 1964, when he was stationed at Fort Carson. At an Elks lodge in Colorado Springs, he spotted eighteen-year-old Rose Gardner. A New Yorker, she was visiting her sister in the Springs. Much to Rose's surprise, Maxie asked if she liked horseback riding. "Most guys got a line," Rose says. "They want to rap, say all kinds of things, and he just came out of the blue with 'You like to horse ride?'"

In the days that followed, they hit another dance club or two, then rode horses along the Garden of the Gods trail. Rose stayed on in Colorado Springs, and they dated for three months before getting married that July. "I don't know if you want to call it love at first sight or what," Rose says.

Maxie had other hobbies besides horseback riding. He loved guns. To practice his quick draw, he'd hold a book at chest level and drop it, then try to get his piece pointed by the time the book hit the floor. He often had Rose pack a gun in her purse, and he taught her how to throw it to him by the barrel so that he could catch it by the grip in an emergency.

In January 1965, the Army transferred Maxie to France. By the time Rose joined him that spring, he'd taught himself to play the cello or the bass -- she can't recall which. The couple stayed in Europe for two years. Maxie got his GED, and a captain adopted him as a teacher's assistant, often leaving Maxie to lead the very class he was enrolled in. The captain tried to talk Maxie into officer's training, and Maxie took the test and passed it. But he ultimately passed on the opportunity because he feared he'd be thrown on the front lines of the Vietnam War.

In 1967, the Army again transferred Maxie -- this time to Kentucky, to teach basic training. Life there moved slower than it had in France, but Maxie still had fun. "Everywhere we were stationed, he always knew lots of people," Rose remembers. "We would do different things. We'd play cards, we'd have a night at this family's house. I don't think he ever met a stranger."

After Kentucky, the Army moved Maxie to Korea for a year; Rose opted to stay with family in New York. In Korea, Maxie busted an arm learning karate, but he didn't give up until he'd earned his black belt. He also met Judy, a captain.

Captains and non-commissioned officers aren't supposed to fraternize with one another, and especially not in a romantic way. The black man/white woman dynamic of their relationship made things even more difficult.

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