1928 Bunion Derby: When 5 African Americans Proved To Ku Klux Klan That Blacks Were Capable Of Long Distance Running

Bunion Derby of 1928/Photo via Ultrarunning History


It was all about the $25,000 prize money for the five African Americans among the 199 runners in the 1928 Bunion Derby. Given the level of racial discrimination at the time, it was a risk they were willing to take.

However, when they arrived in Jim Crow states and radical whites informed them that Blacks were incapable of participating in an endurance race, the goal expanded beyond securing the prize. Their perseverance in the face of open hatred and abuse elevated them to the status of heroes and symbols of pride as well as hope for Black communities, eradicating the stereotype that people of African descent were unfit to run long distances.

The Bunion Derby took place from March 4 to May 26, 1928. The runners were taking part in an 84-day, 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, which drew a lot of public attention. Five African Americans, a Jamaican-born Canadian, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders were among the 199 starters. The remaining athletes were all white.

According to BlackPast, the derby included daily town-to-town stage races that culminated at Madison Square Garden. The race, led by sports promoter Charles C. Pyle, was intended to raise awareness about the expansion and paving of Route 66 across the United States. Pyle was also inspired by the professional distance running craze that swept through the counties in the 1870s.

Towns and cities set up their own indoor tracks, where “pedestrians raced in six-day ‘go as you please’ endurance contests,” according to BlackPast. All that mattered was one’s ability to complete the task. Nobody cared if they ran, walked, crawled, or jogged to the finish line. It was a sport for the working class because it allowed them to earn extra money for their daily needs.

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

Another obstacle awaited the African-American runners. They encountered racism and discrimination as they traveled through the Jim Crow South, where most whites believed that Blacks lacked the wit and discipline to compete in long-distance running. They also believed that there was no reason for blacks to compete against whites.

When the runners arrived in eastern New Mexico, only 96 of the original 199 runners remained. The number of African Americans had decreased from five to three. Eddie Gardner of Seattle, Sammy Robinson of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Toby Joseph Cotton, Junior of Los Angeles—along with Afro-Canadian Phillip Granville of Hamilton, Ontario—were among the original five.

In Texas, the African American runners were forced to sleep in a colored-only tent rather than the communal sleeping tent. The Ku Klux Klan harassed, threatened, and racially abused them. Before the derby crossed into Illinois, they endured more abuses across Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri for a total of a thousand miles and 24 days of what can only be described as hell.

They became heroes for the Black community, which raised funds to support them; they provided them with clean beds for the night and nutritious meals to keep them energized. The African-American runners were also helped by their white teammates, who guarded them because of the bond they had formed while running long distances.

On May 26, 1928, 55 exhausted men completed their final laps around Madison Square Garden’s track. They put an end to the 84-day torture. Three of the top ten finishers were people of color, including Andy Payne, a Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma, who won the $25,000 first prize, Phillip Granville of Canada, who won the $5,000 third prize, and Eddie Gardner of Seattle, who won the $1,000 eighth prize.


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