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.