How Black Americans Invented Mountain Biking

Add to the list of Ulysses Grant’s already amazing legacy, easily being the best General and one of the best if not the best President in history, his environmentalism mixed with civil rights.

The first rangers in America included blacks, known at the time as Buffalo Soldiers.

The US Army assigned them protective duty in newly created “national parks” before a National Park Service existed.

Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers were stationed throughout Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant parks to conserve wildlife from poachers, as well as build access routes.

It was in the mid-1890s — a period noted for the “Wheelmen” advocacy in creating roads — that bicycles were explored as transportation even for the US Army.

Thus, as it was just pointed out to me by Bilal A. Salaam, in the earliest days of modern cycling a team of eight black soldiers rode the American mountains.

Source? Unknown

Fort Missoula’s Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps in the 1890s rode Yellowstone as well as a jaw-dropping 1,900-miles from Fort Missoula, Montana, to Saint Louis, Missouri in 40 days with few roads.

Major General Nelson A. Miles, as Army Commander-in-Chief, expressed his interest by recommending that one full regiment be equipped with bicycles in 1892, and that existing troops at different posts around the country use bicycles to obtain a thorough knowledge of their own country, especially the topographical features, conditions of the roads, sources of supplies, and all information of military importance.

On May 12, 1896, Fort Missoula’s 2nd Lieutenant James A. Moss received permission to organize the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, the first of its kind in the country. Moss, a native of Louisiana and a West Point graduate, was an avid cyclist who set out to thoroughly test the practicality of the bicycle for military purposes.

The 1897 Spalding bikes were simple yet very practical and would even hold their own today:

Moss contacted the A. G. Spalding Company, who provided military bicycles at no cost. The Corps, consisting of eight black enlisted men, soon was riding in formation, drilling, scaling fences up to nine-feet high, fording streams, and pedaling 40 miles a day. Each bicycle carried a knapsack, blanket roll, and a shelter strapped to the handlebar. A hard leather frame case fit into the diamond of each bicycle and a drinking cup was kept in a cloth sack under the seat. Each rider carried a rifle (first slung over the back, later strapped to the horizontal bar) and 50 rounds of ammunition.

Source: Online Bicycle Museum

Not only did these Americans handle self-sufficiency with intentionally stretched supply routes (100 mile distance set between resupply stations, and carrying only 2-days food), on challenging terrain, they also navigated egregiously hostile racism and discrimination.

Source: Fort Missoula Museum

In the face of incredible challenges, in the awesome legacy of Grant’s best ideas, American men who rode the first organized American mountain bikes in history earned their reputation for courage and skill.

Another ride was planned for 1898 all the way to San Francisco to promote even more awareness of black soldiers, yet it was cancelled instead for unclear reasons. Was there fear that opposition might arise to the “immoral war” of 1845 that landed California in American hands, or the genocide of non-whites that followed?

Some believed demonstrations like a grueling ride to San Francisco, or even serving in combat roles as soldiers in America’s “expansionist” pursuits, would gain respect and social entry for blacks:

…many African Americans felt a good military showing by Black troops in the [1899 Spanish-American War in the] Philippines would reflect favorably and enhance their cause in the United States.

The black soldiers, like their impressive mountain biking, indeed ended up playing an outsized heroic role in the Spanish-American war:

“If it hadn’t been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.” Five black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry received the Medal of Honor and 25 other black soldiers were awarded the Certificate of Merit.

Yet this did not improve barriers to civil rights. Quite the opposite.

These American heroes ran directly into American racism. Instead of celebration and expansion, the backlash of resentment from white insecurity grew against these blacks who ventured to demonstrate their value and capabilities — success in America meant risk of being punished and relegated to lesser roles.

Shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War a decline began in the status of Black serviceman. White sentiment ran against Black soldiers; too much apparently had been made of their success, causing them to forget their subservient “place.” Even Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a supporter of Black soldiers, reversing his earlier praise, stated that Black soldiers were peculiarly dependent upon their white officers and Black noncommissioned officers generally lacked the ability to command and handle the men like the best classes of whites. Roosevelt apparently was bowing to the pressures of public opinion.

At the close of the century, however, Black servicemen had become impatient with the long-standing policy of limited opportunities, discrimination, and paternalistic white officers. Chaplain Steward’s comments revealed the deepening dissatisfaction of Black servicemen: “The colored American soldier, by his own prowess, has won an acknowledged place by the side of the best trained fighters with arms,” he said. “In the fullness of his manhood he has no rejoicing in patronizing paean, the colored troops fought nobly, nor does he glow at all when told of his “faithfulness” and devotion to his white officers, qualities accentuated to the point where they might well fit an affectionate dog.”

The military refused to meet the growing expectations of its Black soldiers.

Some in America basically refused to end their anti-democratic rebellion — extending Civil War — especially as blacks proved to be equal in every way to whites who clearly felt a sense of loss from any gains made by their fellow citizens.

A decade later in 1912, Woodrow Wilson narrowly became President with just 42% of the vote and immediately set about denigrating much of Grant’s legacy — using the White House to revive the KKK and terrorize blacks as well as remove blacks from service in government and the military so they would be unable to defend America from men like Woodrow Wilson.

Such a precedent by the Buffalo Soldiers in resilience, resourcefulness, park management and environmental stewardship continues to this day, although these first mountain bikers in American history have mostly been ignored or forgotten because of racism and the color of their skin.

Likewise, the world’s first African-America sports celebrity was a cyclist named Marshall Taylor. You would think such a man would be an American icon, yet how many times have you heard someone even say his name?

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