Chronicling the Black bicycling experience in the DC region

Five Howard University students riding bikes
NMAH Archives Center Scurlock 618 Carton 103 Caption: Howard U. bicyclists, Oct. 1947.

Happy Black History Month, folks! 

February is the time we in the US and Canada remember the struggle and victories of the Black diaspora. The practice goes back to historian Carter G. Woodson, who began it as Negro History Week in 1926. It wouldn’t become a month-long celebration until February 1970, when Black educators and students at Kent State University held their own celebration that inspired others. It took off across the country.

Black History encompasses so much more than enslavement, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. I like to use the month to celebrate the spirit and ingenuity of my ancestors: those in my family tree and all those to whom I look for guidance and inspiration.

That is why I’m excited to share a new project with you, a story series about Black folks and biking in our region. My colleague, Jonathan Stafford and I will be conducting and publishing interviews with people who have deep ties to this area. 

Some are advocates at our Black partner organizations, who’ve long had a finger on the pulse of communities in the region. Others are bike mechanics and former messengers who can offer a first-person account of the biking industry. Still others are historians who can offer some context for the community-oriented stories I’m excited to share with you. Finally, we’ll offer some ways of looking to the future of our region and racial justice, in light of these stories.

Storytelling is valuable in its own right— our goal is to share some stories that might otherwise go untold. But, this project also aims to give us all a better understanding of the history informing how we think about our work.

Narratives are broad: societal, organizational, cultural. Stories are about people.

My title here at WABA is Communications Coordinator but a storyteller is who I am. However, I don’t think any words have been used by nonprofits more (or understood less, for that matter) than “storytelling” and “narrative.” While these buzzwords are often used interchangeably, they do refer to different things. The distinction is pedantic, but also important.  

Stories have a protagonist that is usually a person. Often, there is an antagonist who stands in the way, presenting a challenge to overcome. But it isn’t a thematic overview of your brand or organizational identity. Narratives are big things, a set of beliefs, dispositions, or ideas composed of individual stories.

Narratives are broad: societal, organizational, cultural. Stories are about people. That’s my goal for this project: To elevate stories that challenge, supplement, or contextualize our shared narratives about transportation, bicycling, and justice.

While Black History Month is the place we initiate telling these stories, we have no intention of stopping there. This will kick off something we plan to keep at, all year. Hopefully longer.

I hope this project will explore all of the intersectional spaces whose stories are too often excluded from our narratives. My hope is also to bring in others better equipped to represent these experiences–from Women’s History and Hispanic Heritage, to Disability Rights, Seniors in Cycling, and beyond.

Are you someone with long historical ties to biking and transportation in the DC region? Do you know someone who is? Places to look for information? I would love it if you’d reach out to me at jonathan.kincade@waba.org

Everyone deserves the chance to tell their own story. Because no one can represent it in the way someone who has lived it.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Every job comes with its inherent specialities and institutional knowledge, and the Trail Ranger program is no different. As the DC Trail Ranger Coordinator, I’ve spent a lot of time on the trails we maintain and serve – specifically the Marvin Gaye, Anacostia River, Suitland Parkway and Metropolitan Branch trails. I know a lot about how the trails have changed over the last five years of the program and collectively, we’ve spent hundreds of hours on each of the trails. But what is gained is more than knowledge of broken-glass patterns (always an increase after DC United games on the Anacostia River Trail). It is an appreciation of the smaller details of a trail, built up over repeated shifts. Like that one quiet shift when things feel a little boring and you finally stop to actually observe the flowers. There are special attributes to all of the trails but on the Marvin Gaye Trail, I’ve particularly come to appreciate:

Early Mornings in the Spring

Early morning in the spring is an absolutely magical time to be on the trail. The world is quiet except for the chattering of birds. The Marvin Gaye Trail follows the Watts Branch, the largest tributary of the Anacostia River in DC, from the easternmost corner of DC to Minnesota Ave NE. The trail is entirely within the boundaries of a city park. Marvin Gaye Park and Trail is particularly great for birds because a lot of work has been done to restore native plants and repair the stream corridor – including 10,000 new trees and plants in 2012 alone. A healthier forest and stream ecosystem mean more food, shelter and space for birds. It’s easy to hear which birds have moved in or are visiting during the early mornings when most birds are the most talkative. Sand and greenery in the foreground, a clear rocky stream is flowing behind it. Everything looks prestine

Herons and Beavers

Well, one heron, one time. Herons are a pretty common sight on the Anacostia River Trail, especially near Kingman Island. But one time – I saw a heron at 42nd St. and Hunt Pl. NE in the stream and it was majestic! Though there is certainly work to be done with trash removal along the stream corridor, the amount of trash surrounding the heron was less inspiring. A far more common sight are the presence of beavers – especially their tell-tale cut down stumps. They are really good at logging! And the beaver dam is pretty (dam) cool. Lots of underbrush greenery and dead leaves on the ground. To the right is Watts Branch Stream but the photo is focused on the beaver cut sharp stump in the middle of the photo.

Nannie Helen Burroughs

At one-and-a-half miles long, the trail is in a history-rich environment. A DC boundary stone is just off the eastern end of the trail and the Crystal Room where music legend Marvin Gaye first performed is mid-way through the trail (now Washington Park and People’s Riverside Center). But for historic legacy, it’s hard to beat the campus and gates of the National Training School for Women and Girls on Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave NE. Founded in 1909 by Nannie Helen Burroughs, the prominent 20th century African-American educator and civil rights activist, the school’s location went against the common thinking of the time that a vocational boarding school was more appropriate in the south. The school proceeded to educate thousands of African-American students with Nannie Helen Burroughs as principal until her death in 1961. Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue is particularly notable since many nearby major roads still honor slave-owning families that used to own much of the land around Deanwood (notable examples include Sheriff and Benning). Front white gate of a fence with peeling white paint. THere is an gold image of Lincoln on top of the arch and it reads "Progressive National Baptist Convention" in black cursive font.

Playground at Marvin Gaye Recreation Center

Musical-themed splash park and playground at a recreation center named for Marvin Gaye, and the result of hard work by the community for neighborhood amenities. Need I say more? A playground on a sunny day. there is a giant guitar in front and the slides structure behind has keyboard printed roof. There is a water splash park.  

Little Known Black History of Blacks in Biking

It’s February and that means it’s Black History Month! This month, I’d like to highlight a few little known black history facts about blacks in biking.

“Bicyclists’ group on Minerva Terrace. [Lt. James A. Moss’s company of 25th Infantry, U. S. Army Bicycle Corps, from Fort Missoula, Montana.] YNP.”
October 7, 1896.

Buffalo Soldier Bob Marley’s song Buffalo Soldier is not just a great sing-along song with a wonderful bridge-Woe! Yoe! Yo!  It is a song that tells a story about the 25th Infantry United States Army Bicycle Corps. The theory is the name was given to them by Native Americans because their hair felt like a buffalo’s pelt. The name was embraced by the soldiers because they were familiar with the buffalo’s bravery and fighting spirit. The soldiers were one of the many segregated units of the U.S. Army. They were testing if bicycles could replace horses in the military. Their biggest test came when they rode 1900 miles from Ft. Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri. They averaged 56 miles a day and completed the trip in 34 days. To learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers contribution to the U.S. Army, check out the book Iron Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps” by George Niels Sorensen (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000) Vélocipede + Tricycle In 1888, Mathew A. Cherry invented and received the patent for the vélocipede. The vélocipede was a metal seat with frame set on top of two or three wheels. This design was a big improvement over previous designs. The rider would propel themselves along with their feet on the ground in a fast walking or running motion. This design eventually evolved into the bicycle and tricycle. In May 1888, Cherry received the patent for the tricycle. In the U.S., the tricycle is used mostly by children. However, in Asia and Africa, it’s used for commercial deliveries and transportation.

Picture courtesy of patentpending.blogs.com

Panniers One of the things that makes biking a great form of transportation is the ability to carry stuff. In 1899, Jerry M. Certain created the first bicycle parcel carriers, designed to carry items via bike. Today, we call these parcel carriers panniers and they are essential to many riders who use bicycles for transportation and travel. These are just little facts about African-American contributions to making bicycling better and accessible for all. Think about that the next time you load up your pannier for a ride!