The race took them over some of the most difficult, varied, and untouched terrain on the planet. They trekked across the swirling sands and scorching heat of the Mojave Desert, blinded by clouds of dust kicked up by passing cars and howling sandstorms. They kissed the sky over the Southern Rockies, gasping for air underneath the clouds. They fought off hypothermia amidst engulfing blizzards. By eastern New Mexico, already 103 men had dropped. They trudged through ankle-deep mud, churned from torrential downpours across vast endless vistas of the Texas Panhandle and the Great Plains. They navigated through the smoke-filled air of industrial America past cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, Gary, Cleveland, and Erie. They endured the humiliation of feeling exploited for profit in Madison Square Garden. They survived deplorable quarters and meager-to-nonexistent meals. They staved off drunk drivers, gruesome injuries, monotonous boredom, and misleading hallucinations induced by mirages, lack of sleep and utter exhaustion. Upon the event’s conclusion on May 26, 1928, only 55 managed to cross the finish line. They were the “bunioneers” of the 1928 International Trans-Continental Los Angeles to New York Foot Race, the first official footrace across the United States.
In 1928, the US stood at a crossroads. The extravagance and exuberance of a decade of Wall Street speculation, Prohibition gangsters blurring the lines between Robin Hood vigilantes and machine gun-wielding criminals, jazz blaring from underground speakeasies, flappers and feminist activists challenging social norms, “talkie” films and radio altering the possibilities of entertainment, and flagpole-sitters daring all for a cheap thrill, had just culminated in the decade’s crowning accomplishment: the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh. The Roaring Twenties, however, were about to come crashing down into the Great Depression, bleeding into the devastation of World War II, burying the glory of this extraordinary interlude.
But before that could happen, a final grand spectacle put on by a scheming businessman and “the nation’s first sports agent,” Charles C. Pyle, would expose elements of a thinly veiled cultural civil war that festered in the American psyche underneath the gloss of the era’s glitz and glamour. The inclusion of five African American runners was a massive shock to many people in a time of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) prominence. The common belief among whites was that blacks had no right to compete against whites in athletics and that blacks were only suited to run short distances, given Jim Crow-era stereotypes about their laziness and inability to concentrate for long stretches. These beliefs were only further reinforced by minstrel shows and vaudeville performances that pervaded Broadway. The success, however, of African American runner Eddie Gardner in the race would challenge the system of discrimination in America, giving the 1920s a form of subtle progress in race relations.
The media skeptically dubbed Pyle’s race “The Bunion Derby” for the bunions that runners were surely to receive during their epic trek. The runners were subsequently called “bunioneers.” The race would ambitiously take place over a span of 84 days, with runners competing daily in 40-50 mile stages. The contestant with the least cumulative elapsed time at race end in New York would receive the first place prize of $25,000.
The setting for the race was “America’s Main Street,” US Highway Route 66. Only two years old when the bunioneers first toed the line, this grand American road had only 800 miles of actual pavement. The remaining 1,600 miles were comprised of mostly dirt, gravel, and loose bricks, and was easily washed out by the average rainstorm. Only in 1938 would the route become fully paved. Therefore, for the bunioneers, Route 66 was a raw canvas on which their steps would paint a footprint of America’s past willing itself to the future. Arguably, the national visibility of the race highlighted the primitive state of Route 66, and thus brought a sense of urgency to completing it in the following years.
This world of the unknown was what faced the gladiators of the Bunion Derby. On Sunday, March 4, 1928, 199 brave souls set off from Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles destined for Madison Square Garden in New York City. Eagerly accepting the extreme challenge of the 3,422-mile odyssey, for various motivations, the runners would quickly come to terms with the stark reality that they had plunged into adverse madness.
To the spectator, the Bunion Derby was a glorious exposé of America’s geographic diversity to the world. For the bunioneers, it was a living hell that made them question their own rationality. For Eddie Gardner and his four fellow African American runners, it was a fundamental existential test of the human spirit against deep societal issues plaguing the nation.
Upon entering the Texas Panhandle, Gardner collided head-on with Jim Crow America. Throughout the six-day stretch he and the other black runners faced intense harassment, intimidation, and discrimination. They were barred from hotels and other communal sleeping quarters, segregated to “colored only” tents with hardly any cover. In McLean, Texas, an angry white mob surrounded Gardner’s trainer’s tent, threatening all night to burn it down.
On Day 38, the Derby took the bunioneers fifty miles to Clinton, Oklahoma, where throngs of people stood eagerly anticipating the arrival of Oklahoma’s own, Andy Payne, who was one of the leaders throughout the race and the eventual winner. Instead, Gardner surprised everyone by coasting into downtown with a three-mile lead on the next closest runner. The town was furious that somehow a black man had spoiled their hero’s parade. Reportedly, the local KKK chapter plotted retribution. The previous day, an outraged white farmer had ridden a mule behind Gardner, fixing a shotgun on his head all day long, daring him to pass a white runner.
This brush with death, however, only further fueled Gardner’s fire. He recognized by now that he could not singlehandedly change the ways of the Jim Crow South. He could, however, chip away at systemic racism and discrimination by keeping the nation’s focus on these issues through his prominence on the race course. His performance against some of the world’s most heralded athletes did all the talking that was necessary, “leaving the cries of ‘Niggah drop dead’ and ‘be picking cotton, coon’” as Derby historian Charles Kastner describes, “to die in the prairie winds.”
Gardner, who grew up in Seattle, was relatively shielded from the racist fervor that pervaded the Deep South. The racial vitriol Gardner endured was a painfully new experience for him. Back in the Pacific Northwest he was venerated as an athletic hero for his previous triumphs in local races.
The death threats in Jim Crow Texas and Oklahoma thus served as a turning point for Gardner. His insulation from racism and segregation had been shattered and seemingly he now carried the weight of an entire race on his back. Gardner decided that winning the Bunion Derby was something he would sacrifice his life for, marking the transformation of his race into a protest. As Kastner states, he became the “quiet hero in the war for black equality in America.”
Gardner was also bolstered by the support from the black community throughout his perilous journey. His many stage victories routinely gave him front-page headlines in black newspapers, including Oklahoma’s Black Dispatch, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Afro-American. These headlines quickly made him a household name and symbol of pride and hope for African Americans everywhere. The black bunioneers also found empathy from their fellow runners who had formed a brotherhood over their shared physical suffering on the course. Many of the international competitors, who were unaccustomed to American society, were appalled to witness forced segregation in a country they had been drawn to for its idealism. They called it “the most disgraceful thing they ever knew about.” Derby-winner Payne later remarked that Gardner could have easily won the Bunion Derby had he not had to contend with not only the vicious demoralization brought on by hatred, but also the distractions brought on by adoration. In almost every town he passed, the black communities overcrowded the streets to cheer him on and potentially catch a glimpse of their hero.
On Day 55, the runners arrived in East St. Louis, Missouri, a town with a stark history of racial violence. In July 1917, scores of white mobs had ravished the black community there, burning two hundred homes and killing at least 39 residents in retaliation for the alleged killing of two white police officers. In one the most symbolic images of the race, Eddie Gardner led the field through this section on the road to the Land of Lincoln. He was the first runner to set sights on the Mississippi River. And yet, many newspaper accounts did not even call him by name, but rather the “16-year-old negro school boy of Seattle.”
When Gardner returned to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama after the race, only the state’s black community of 900,000 acknowledged his accomplishment. There was no line of print in the state’s newspapers. In stark contrast, Gardner’s hometown of Seattle welcomed him with a huge mixed-race crowd in June 1928 and the Seattle Post Intelligencer editorial board sponsored a fundraiser for a down payment on a house for him. Simply by running and succeeding in the nation’s first transcontinental footrace, Gardner had successfully combated the vicious grasp of Jim Crow segregation and exposed the deep-seeded regional rifts that continued to scourge the nation. In doing so, however, he exhibited, in the year preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, one of the earliest beginnings of non-violent protest, a method which would be championed by the Civil Rights Movement decades later. Asked by a reporter what the toughest part of the Bunion Derby was for him, Gardner responded by listing the desert trek, the blizzard in Texas, and the seventy-five mile day in New York. There was no mention of the racial hatred and death threats he faced. His trainer, George Custis, explained that “we have accepted every shameful condition with silence because we knew that the main point of the great game was to stay in and win.”
Gardner’s performance in the 1928 Bunion Derby ushered in an era of sports at the forefront of integration. Years before the triumphs of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in the belly of Nazi hatred and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in America’s pastime, major league baseball in 1947, there was Eddie Gardner and his fellow African-American bunioneers. Although he had the highest number of first-place stage victories, Gardner would ultimately finish in eighth place with a time of 659 hours, 56 minutes, 47 seconds, earning him a scant $1,000. For the thousands of black children who saw him on his quest for glory, however, his finish in the Bunion Derby alone was a shining source of inspiration, hope and pride during a terrible time of Jim Crow segregation and racial violence. On Day 41, Gardner spoke to the Oklahoma City Negro Business League stating “I am not thinking much about the money to be gotten out of this race. My idea is that it would be a wonderful thing to win this test of endurance for [black America].”
While essentially forgotten in the pages of history, Gardner’s fortitude and persistence laid a foundation upon which future pioneers of integration could build upon. Additionally, Gardner’s success in the 1928 race across America added a human form of progress in race and class issues, to a decade of remarkable technological advancement. He broke down not only race barriers, but also class barriers, proving that wealth, privilege, and race were no longer advantages or guarantees to success in an era of excessive avarice.
The simple art of running enabled the inclusion of both rich and poor, white and black, and professional and amateur. The Bunion Derby was an adventure in which almost anyone willing could partake. African Americans escaping systemic poverty and racism, immigrants with little knowledge of English and lacking familial ties, and farm boys dreaming of travel and big city life all shared aspirations for competing against some of the world’s foremost runners and race walkers. The victory of international superstars was deemed to be a formality, yet all of these “shoo-ins” failed to even complete the race. Although the Roaring Twenties symbolized the magnitude of American technological ingenuity, the 1928 Bunion Derby served as a reminder that some of man’s greatest achievements can happen with his own power and endurance, one step at a time.
Williams, Geoff. C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, Inc., 2007.