01 December 2016

5 Cyclists, From The Big Apple To The Capital--In 1928

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that one of my passions, besides cycling, is history.  And you know that among my particular interests are the history of women and ethnic and racial minorities in cycling.

Well, I have just stumbled across an account of female African-American long-distance cyclists.   Never before had I heard or read any mention of it.  And were it not for the work of an enterprising PhD student, it probably would still be another forgotten episode of history.

Today Marya McQuirter is an historian at the Smithsonian Institution.  Two decades ago, she was doing research for her dissertation on the history of African-American women in Washington, DC in the first half of the twentieth century when she found these names: Marylou Jackson, Velva Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson and Constance White.

Photograph by Addison Surlock.  Originally published in Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, 1928.  Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Learning about those women changed Ms. McQuirter's life.  She wanted to understand, as fully as possible, not only what they did, but what might have motivated them.  To do that, she took up cycling.  But being a cyclist wasn't just a role she played and abandoned once she finished her dissertation:  She took cycling classes with the Washington Area Bicycle Association.  Now she teaches those same classes as a Licensed Cycling Instructor certified and supported by the League of American Bicyclists.

What did learning about five women who might otherwise have been forgotten do to inspire Marya McQuirter to become such a dedicated cyclist?  They rode their bicycles from New York City to Washington, DC over three days.  Doing 400 kilometers (250 miles) over that span of time is certainly an accomplishment for just about any cyclist, of any age or background, at any time.  

But those intrepid women--who were African-American, as is Ms. McQuirter--took their ride over Easter weekend in 1928.  Yes, you read that right.

Now, those of us who are cyclists would probably think first about how their ride was made more difficult because of the less-advanced state of bicycles at that time, as well as road conditions (Sometimes there were no roads!)  and the lack of amenities in some areas.  If you know a bit about history, you might think about the fact that they were women:  Even though bicycles may have done more than anything else to liberate women, as Susan B. Anthony declared, the vast majority of long-distance cyclists were, and are, male.   The six-day races popular at that time were almost entirely a white male preserve, even some three decades after Major Taylor won cycling's World Championship.

According to Mc Quirter, though, one of the things that made their journey unique--and the women who undertook it so courageous--is that they were African-American women going from the North to the South.  

When they set out from the Big Apple, "the Great Migration" in the other direction had been in full swing for more than a decade.  Almost overnight, neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other northern cities became havens for African-Americans fleeing the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and the oppression of Jim Crow laws in the Southern states.  And, at that time, Washington--the nation's capital, no less--was as segregated as Atlanta, Birmingham or any other Southern city you can name. (Many would argue that it is just as segregated now, half a century after the end of Jim Crow.)

According to McQuirter, the Fearless Five returned to New York by train.  Most likely, they would have taken the Baltimore and Ohio or the Pennsylvania Railroad.  On her Facebook page, McQuirter points out that, starting in 1897,  "Pennsy" allowed passengers to take their bikes on the train with them for free.  If only Amtrak had such a policy!


  1. Your post prompted me to FINALLY look up the meaning of "Capital," as used in your post, versus "Capitol," such as in "Capitol Hill." It turns out that both are correct, and, as I might have expected, you used Capital correctly. The US Capital is Washington DC. The US Congress meets in the US Capitol; on Capitol Hill. I've been confused about this for a while, since there is an exit off the freeway for the Washington Capitol, and, a little while further, there's an exit for the "Capital Mall." I'd always thought the Mall had its name misspelled by a bunch of ignorant crackers, but it turns out I was the ignorant one. See, blogs can be very educational!!!!!!

    And yes, your post was educational in the way you intended it as well. Where do you dig up this stuff? It would never have occurred to me to start digging to see what Marya McQuirter might have to say about cyclists nearly a century ago. Thanks, even if you merely use some sort of psychic aura we mere mortals can only dream about.

  2. What a fascinating topic. I wonder if they carried a copy of the Negro Motorist Greenbook that African Americans used to find restaurants, hotels and other businesses that were willing to serve them during the Jim Crow era. Justine, I suggest that you get busy on a screenplay. Might I suggest Viola Davis for the lead role?

    1. MT Cyclist, I am, Marya McQuirter, the person who has been researching the 5 cyclists. The Negro Motorist Green Book did not start until 1936.

      I am working on a screenplay!

    2. Marya--I'm glad to see you here. And thanks for the info about the Green Book.

      May the best screenplay win....

  3. Steve--It took me a long time to get "capital" and "capitol" right. The Capitol is in the capital.

    Actually, a lot of what I write on this blog (and my other) is stuff I find while brainstorming, or when I go off on a tangent when I'm looking up something else. The latter resulted in this post: For a class, I was looking up some material on feminism and the civil rights movement.

    MT--A screenplay? Hmm....That could be fun and interesting. I wouldn't mind rubbing elbows with Viola Davis.

    I hand't thought about the Greenbook when I was writing this post. Now, it they used that, that would be an interesting detail to add to a screenplay.