BY Stephen Nartey, 1:20pm January 17, 2023,

1928 Bunion Derby: when 5 African Americans proved to Ku Klux Klan that Blacks were suited to long distance running

Bunion Derby of 1928/Photo via Ultrarunning History

For the five African Americans out of the 199 runners who were participating in the Bunion Derby of 1928, it was all about the $25,000 prize money. It was a risk they signed up for given the height of racial discrimination at the time.

But, when they got to Jim Crow states and radical whites pointed out to them that Blacks were not capable of participating in an endurance race, the goal went beyond securing the prize. Their perseverance in the face of blatant hate and abuse made them heroes and symbols of pride as well as hope for Black communities, erasing the prejudice that people of African descent were unsuitable to run long distances.

The Bunion Derby was held on March 4 to May 26, 1928. It attracted a lot of public attention because the runners were participating in an 84-day, 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City. The contenders were 199 starters comprising five African Americans, a Jamaican-born Canadian, Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. The rest of the athletes were white.

The derby included daily town-to-town stage races that ended up at Madison Square Garden, according to BlackPast. The race, which was led by sports promoter Charles C. Pyle, was aimed at creating awareness about the expansion and paving of Route 66 through the United States. Pyle had also been inspired by professional distance running in the 1870s that swept over the counties.

Towns and cities organized their own indoor tracks where “pedestrians raced in six day ‘go as you please’ contests of endurance,” BlackPast said. All that mattered was one’s ability to finish. No one cared whether they ran, walked, crawled or jogged to complete the race. It was a sport for the working class because they managed to make extra cash for their daily needs.

But the Bunion Derby was different. The competitors were trekking on unpaved potholed Route 66 across the American West, running daily ultra-marathons across thousands of miles under the hot scorching sun and the freezing mountains and thin air of Arizona and New Mexico.

The African-American runners had another hurdle to cross. They faced racism and discrimination as they journeyed in the Jim Crow segregated South, where most whites were of the view that Blacks lacked the wit and discipline to compete in long-distance running. They also believed Blacks had no reason to compete against whites.

When the runners got to eastern New Mexico, it was left with only 96 of the original 199 who started. The African American number had dropped from five to three. The original five included Eddie Gardner of Seattle, Sammy Robinson of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Toby Joseph Cotton, Junior of Los Angeles–and Afro-Canadian Phillip Granville, of Hamilton, Ontario.

The African American runners were made to sleep in a colored-only tent in Texas instead of the communal sleeping tent. They were harassed, threatened, and racially abused by the Ku Klux Klan. They suffered more abuses across Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri under a total of a thousand miles and 24 days of what one would describe as hell before the derby crossed into Illinois.

But they became heroes for the Black community which raised money to support them; they gave them clean beds for the night and good meals to keep them refreshed. The African-American runners were also supported by their white teammates who protected them because of the bond they had formed running difficult miles.

On May 26, 1928, 55 exhausted men made their final laps around the track in Madison Square Garden. They brought the 84-day torture to a close. Three of the top ten finishers were people of color, including the $25,000 first prize winner, Andy Payne, a part Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma, the $5,000 third place winner, Phillip Granville of Canada, and the $1,000 eighth place winner, Eddie Gardner of Seattle.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 17, 2023


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates