When Moss Point High School teacher Louis Henderson started bringing his bike to his classroom to keep it safe before outings after school last year, his students of all races joked that he was doing “things that white people do.”
Then he started showing them videos of his rides and maps of his routes. He told them about Marshall “Major” Taylor, a black man from Indianapolis who won the title of world’s fastest cyclist in 1899.
“Now they’re like they’re used to what I’m driving,” he said.
Henderson, who bought his first bike at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a member of Mississippi’s first Major Taylor Cycling Club, the Jackson-based Soul City Cycling group.
The group was officially launched earlier this year and now has 38 members, with several weekly outings around Jackson. They aim to attract more people to the sport and increase the visibility of the Black Mississippians in cycling.
Soul City Cycling is part of a growth wave for the organization, said Bill Gaston, president of the Major Taylor 1899 Association, Inc., a national umbrella group of Major Taylor clubs. Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida all now have clubs. Texas has five.
For Soul City Cycling President Arree Williams, Taylor’s most inspiring life story is the six-day race. For six days in a row in 1896, Taylor cycled around a track in Madison Square Garden in New York City. He was the only black man competing against some of the best cyclists in the world, some of whom called him racial slurs during the competition.
At the time, Williams pointed out, the country was only 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Hopes for political representation and equality for black Americans during the Reconstruction era faded as southern legislatures restricted voting and legalized segregation.
“This black man, this African American is entering a sport dominated by white Americans, and he is able to overcome all this adversity and become a champion and earn respect,” he said.
START WITH A BIKE
Byram’s Kendra Patterson bought a bike in 2019. Then she fell in love.
“It really changed my life in ways I can’t even explain,” said Patterson, vice president of Soul City Cycling. “I don’t like the gym. I do not like to run. I love cycling. And I didn’t know I liked it until I got back on a bike.
Every cyclist interviewed for this article had a story like Patterson’s. Most people bought a bike because they were looking for a low impact way to stay in shape. Five miles turned into 10, then 20. Fifty miles seemed daunting, but soon 100 (also called a centenary) was an achievable goal.
Now, members of the Mississippi Major Taylor Club are cycling evangelists. Patterson points out that given the state’s high and rising rates of obesity and diabetes, getting more people on two wheels could save lives.
But they also know what it’s like to be one of the few, if not the only, black cyclist to take a ride.
Professionally, there are very few black runners (although champions like Los Angeles-based Justin Williams are working to change that). In recreational cycling, a bicycle shop owner told Bicycling Magazine last year that the industry “defaults to this goal of a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied male with class privileges.” .
Williams said when he started riding in 2010 he attended a regular race on Tuesday that drew up to 70 people. He was one of three black men who cycled there in any given week. And, as a rookie, he was usually at the back of the pack.
“I don’t know if people really understand that intimidating factor, when you’re trying to jump into something new and you’re not in it with people you know or tend to be more with. at ease, “he said.
Denise Handy of Clinton recalls a walk with a predominantly white group. When they stopped for a break, another woman, who is not black, said she was out of water. Handy offered her an unopened bottle, but the woman wouldn’t look at it. Instead, she took a bottle from a White Horseman, although he had already drunk it.
Handy never rode with the group again.
Williams first met a Major Taylor club when he competed in Greenwood’s Bikes, Blues and Bayous a few years ago. The Arkansas contingent, the Rock City Riders, impressed him.
“They were so measured and so precise and synchronized and tuned, it was almost like a military team on a bike,” he said. “They were all black cyclists, you know, and it was different for me.”
At the time, however, he didn’t know enough black Mississippians in cycling to think about starting a club here.
But little by little, the future members found themselves one by one.
A friend introduced Williams to a cyclist, who then brought in two more cyclists, then more.
“And then Charles knew Doc, and Doc knew Greg, and we knew David, and we all got together,” Williams said.
Earlier this year, they decided to establish themselves as the official Major Taylor Club. This summer, the group traveled to Atlanta and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they joined the Black Wall Street 100 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Handy, who is known in the group for her competitive streak, remembers running up a huge hill in Tulsa at a speed of almost 40 miles per hour.
“There was also a little fear in me – what if I hit that sidewalk?” She reminded herself. “When I pretty much get on my bike, there is a rush every time.”
At the bottom of the hill, they found themselves facing a beautiful lake. They stopped for a group photo.
MAJOR GROWTH FOR TAYLOR IN THE SOUTH
Gaston, who lives in Chicago, said there were now about 5,000 Major Taylor club members in 25 to 30 states. The first was founded in Ohio in 1979. The new Mississippi club is part of a wave of growth for the organization.
“George Floyd’s situation, some of these situations led to a kind of radiance of positivity and cycling,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also led people to seek opportunities to spend time outdoors. And, as Major Taylor clubs grew, more and more people saw their riders and wanted to learn how to get involved.
When bikers stop for a break and curious passers-by want to chat, one of the first questions is usually “What is Major Taylor?” From there, club members share his story and question possible assumptions about black Americans.
It is especially powerful to see this “positive image” in the South, he said.
“Despite all the adversity that Mississippi is known for, they keep driving over there,” he said. “They’re developing a club that’s a presence.”
Membership is open to anyone who wishes to ride “in the spirit of Major Taylor,” Williams said.
“It’s not a question of race, it’s not a question of color,” he said. “It’s about you riding a bicycle, I ride a bicycle, we both ride a bicycle, we love biking, when are we going to cycle again?” “
A SATURDAY MORNING AT WOOLMARKET
Before 7 a.m. on September 25, about 20 cyclists from across the state and Louisiana gathered in the parking lot of the Woolmarket Community Center. The weather had turned chilly and chilly just in time for Henderson’s planned 60-mile ride, mostly on two-lane roads in Stone County.
As the cyclists pulled up the sleeves of their cars and donned cycling shoes, Chuck Jackson explained the members’ nicknames.
Handy is the Daring Diva Denise, because she likes to surpass herself during the walks (except cycling, she is also a certified hiking guide). Leslie Dunbar is Sparkles, after the light-colored spots on her black bike. Jackson is a Spinner because when he started riding he was always spinning his wheels at low speed.
“We’re like brothers and sisters,” Jackson said.
For the first time ever, Soul City Cycling members rode in new kits designed by Jackson, Dunbar, Patterson and Handy. The colors – blue, white, yellow, and red – were inspired by the new Mississippi state flag.
A few minutes after 7.15 am, the cyclists rode on Old Woolmarket Road.
“All aboard,” shouted a runner. “This train is moving.”