Sisterhood hits a trail that 5 women on bikes blazed 86 years ago


Bicyclists cyling from New York City to Washington ended their 260-mile ride at the Capitol. (Clarence Eckerson Jr./Streetfilms )
John Kelly
Columnist March 26

It was only later — after she had thawed out from her four-day bicycle ride, in freezing weather, from New York City to Washington — that Lesly Jones reflected on the women who had inspired the journey in the first place.

“My understanding from that group of women is they were definitely thinking about sisterhood, something that we can do as women and friends,” said Lesly, a 50ish marketing and data analyst who lives in the District.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

On Feb. 28, Lesly and 10 other women left New York’s Washington Square Park. They arrived at the U.S. Capitol on March 3 and then rolled to the National Bike Summit at the Renaissance Hotel. They were a mix of D.C. and New York cyclists, all committed to showing the power of the wheel.

They were following in the footsteps (pedaling in the tire tracks?) of five young women who made thetrip in 1928, a time when — for a lot of reasons — that ride was unique. The women were African American college students or recent graduates: Marylou Jackson, Velva Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson and Constance White.

Washington historian Marya McQuirter uncovered their story in the mid-1990s while working on her PhD dissertation, a social history of African Americans in Washington. Their journey was covered by the black press, including in the Washington Tribune.

“I was just kind of blown away,” said Marya, who works for the D.C. Public Library and will soon take a job at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Five black women? I think even today it would be news. It shouldn’t be necessarily, but I think it would be.”

The five women made their trip in April. They did in three days what Lesly’s group did in four. Marya said that during their time in Washington, they saw the cherry blossoms, did some sightseeing on the Mall and visited Howard University. They spent the night at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and caught a train back to New York the next day.

While the five riders didn’t, in the end, figure in Marya’s thesis, she has continued to study them — and black cycling.

If she could magically go back in time and speak to them, Marya said she would ask how they planned their trip. Where did they stay along the way? What was the reaction as they rolled through different towns?

“I’d probably ask them personal questions about their sexuality,” she said. “I suspect there are some who were gay. I’d be curious about that.”

As far as Marya can tell, the five women didn’t make the ride to break any racial or gender barriers. “Reporters asked them why they did it,” she said. “They said, ‘For love of the great outdoors.’ ”

The popularity of cycling in this country has fluctuated over time. We seem to be in a rising cycle now. A similar trip — from the District to New York — was done in 2013 by members of Red, Bike and Green, a national organization devoted to cycling in the black community. The commitment that some have to cycling is exemplified by people such as Lesly, who lives downtown, doesn’t own a car and has done several long-distance rides.

“I find cycling to be very mind-clearing for me,” she said. “If I’m struggling with something or if I’m not having a great day, I’ll go out and ride my bike a bit.”

Nelle Pierson, outreach coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, also made the recent trip. Had she ever done a 260-mile journey before?

“Heck no,” she laughed. “I’m not really interested in biking that way. I bike because I’m cheap and lazy, because I don’t want to go to the gym and I don’t want to spend money on cars.”

Marya thinks the 1928 trip — and other examples of African American involvement in cycling that she’s found — should expand the way we think of black leisure.

“The segregation-integration dyad doesn’t really work, doesn’t help to tell us a fuller story,” she said. “Obviously, you have to try to talk about segregation, but that doesn’t give you a sense of day-to-day life.”

Perhaps the message is this: Those five young women weren’t going to let anything stand in the way of doing something they enjoyed.

The center cannot hold

Farewell to the Wheaton Youth Center, which the Montgomery County Council is allowing to be demolished.

Some people said the building was moldy. I never saw mold in my brief visits, but I didn’t check out every nook and cranny. It was always more pleasing from the outside than the inside, anyway. With its undulating roof line and Japanese touches, it is a lovely building.

Perhaps the council can assure me of this: that every building it approves from now on will be at least as appealing as the one it just directed be torn down

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