March 20, 2013
by Carolyn Szczepanski
Guest post by Marya McQuirter
Years ago while working on her dissertation on the social history of blacks in D.C. during the first half of the 20th century, McQuirter came upon an article about five black women who biked from New York City to Washington in 1928. She is trying to gather as many details she can about their three-day, 250-mile trip.
Decades before AIDS Rides, Critical Mass, Tweed Rides and more, five women embarked on a group ride from New York City to Washington, D.C. during Easter weekend in 1928. Yes, 1928! These five New Yorkers — Marylou Jackson, Velma Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson and Constance White — biked 250 miles over three days.
On the first day of their ride, they biked 110 miles to Philadelphia. The second day, they biked 40 miles to Wilmington, Delaware. The third and final day, they biked more than 100 miles, arriving in Washington, D.C. around 9pm. Once in D.C., they did some sightseeing around the National Mall and Howard University. They also took time to have the above photograph taken. I love how they sit so confidently on their bicycles, resplendent in their leather jackets, caps, bloomers and stylish socks.
When asked what motivated them to embark on the group ride, they responded that they were motivated by “the love of the great-out-of-doors” that each of them cherished. Interestingly, they also challenged other young women, 21 years old and older, to replicate their trip in less time. What are we to make of this challenge, the professed love for “outdoor” culture and the trip, in general? And what was happening in 1928 that provides a context for the ride?
Clearly, they were all avid cyclists. It would be impossible to complete this type of ride without serious conditioning, training and skills. Further, two of the cyclists were active in the field of physical education — one at the Harlem YWCA and the other at the Sargent School of Physical Training. It seems very likely that they were in the forefront of promoting women and sports.
Cycling in 1928 was a low-key, mixed bag. There were definitely cycling clubs active in New York City. And I’m certain that the cyclists were members of a cycling club. At the same time, recreational cycling came to be seen as an activity for the young — particularly males. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that we begin to see an uptick in adult cycling.
One of the most popular activities for professional cyclists and fans in the 1920s was six-day races — track cycling races that usually involved a team of two cyclists. These races were primarily the domain of white male cyclists. Perhaps the five women were fans of the six-day races that took place in Madison Square Garden and sought to publicize women cyclists and to replicate competitive team cycling on the open road.
While we may never get the full answers to these questions, it is exciting to know about these five women and their bike trip and to imagine how many others are out there that we haven’t discovered yet.
Marya A. McQuirter is writing a book and producing a film about the five cyclists and their trip. She can be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org