Photo: Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, 1928. Addison Scurlock, photographer. Photographcourtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
NMAAHC historian, Marya McQuirter, uncovered this amazing story about five black women who biked cross-country in the mid-1900s while working on her PhD dissertation.
Nearly 87 years ago, five friends; Marylou Jackson, Velva Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson and Constance White biked from New York to Washington, DC during Easter weekend.
In 1928, these five black women biked over 250 miles in three days — an unusual feat for black women at the time. They started out on the morning of Good Friday in Manhattan, where they all lived, and biked 100 miles (a century in bike terms) to Philadelphia. They spent the night at the Philadelphia Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). On Saturday morning, they biked 40 miles to Wilmington, where they spent the night, and on the morning of Easter Sunday, they arrived at the nation’s capital. While in DC, they did some sightseeing on the National Mall and at Howard University. And they also posed for the above photograph in front of the Washington Tribune newspaper building at 922 U Street, NW. Addison Scurlock, founder and owner of the popular Scurlock Studio, was the photographer. Scurlock was known for documenting the life of African Americans in the nation’s capital.
To learn about the history of the Scurlock Studio, check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibit, The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise.
Photo: “Phillis Wheatley YWCA” by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
They spent the night at the Phillis Wheatley YWCA at 901 Rhode Island Ave, NW. The next day they returned to Manhattan via train.
These women made a conscious decisions to master one of the 19th century’s foremost technological advances for pleasure, mobility, sport and visibility.
I’ve collected some quotes from the cyclists about their journey:
- On pleasure: when asked why they took the trip, they responded that it was for the “love of the great out-of doors.”
- On mobility: they chose the bicycle as their vehicle for traveling ‘down south’ at the same time that when women, men and children were fleeing the south to escape white terror
- On sports: they challenged women 21 years and older to replicate their trip in less time
- On visibility: they wanted their feat to be shared with the masses, hence securing features in the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Age and the Washington Tribune newspapers.
And to this latter point, they weren’t the only ones. I have found dozens of examples of other black women with bicycles who have sought visibility, whether through studio portraits, family photographs, publicity shots, vacation pictures and more.
Photo:Howard University coeds use bicycles to teach elementary school students how to calculate the circumference of a circle. c. 1930s Addison Scurlock, photographer. Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
I have been inspired by the 5 cyclists to share the larger story of individuals who mobilized multiple technologies—bicycles and photography—for their own needs. To that end, I am curating a book of historical photographs of black women and bicycles, from the 1880s to the present.
Written by Marya McQuirter., Historian, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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