In 1928, Marylou Jackson, Velma Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson, and Constance White set a challenge - cycle 250-mi from Harlem, NY to Washington, DC in less than 65 hours. 93 years later, Keshia Roberson has organized a ride to answer the call. The 1928 Legacy Tour is designed for radical joy in the outdoors while amplifying Black women’s legacy of athleticism and bicycle touring and celebrating sisterhood on bikes. You can learn more about the legacy tour at: https://majorknoxadventures.com/ and https://events.elitefeats.com/majorknox21
In this blog, Alison Desir had the opportunity to sit down and get to know Keshia (you can find her on Instagram here), along with the 1928 Legacy Tour:
Let's start with something easy. Who is Keshia Ro? What makes you tick?
Ha! Who is Keshia? I suppose that answer is continuously evolving. Right now, I would describe myself as a Black woman committed to exploration, healing, and being of service to my community. There is a quote I've clung to that says, "What you heal within yourself, you heal for your bloodline." As I learn more about my people, ancestral and cultural, the more intentional I am about adding to the vibrancy of our legacy.
Seeing things I thought were impossible for myself is rewarding, and being of service to others is fulfilling to me. I want my work to be about holding inclusive spaces for people to flex versions of themselves often limited or undiscovered. Whether I'm serving tables, setting up an event, coaching Track Tuesdays, leading a conversation around mental health, or off on an outdoor adventure with friends, I'm always excited about the idea of encouraging folks to join me as we work towards experiencing our most joyful selves.
Tell me about your new role as Community Advisor of Run 4 All Women?
In my role as a community advisor, I am continuing R4AW's mission, but now as a leader that helps direct the movement. More specifically, I have the opportunity to share knowledge that will help us support our work.
History fascinates me, especially learning about women who have historically been marginalized. I am always interested in sharing what I learn because there is usually a great deal of strength and bravery in the stories that can encourage people. So much of our history has been distorted or looked over in the past. I believe in order to craft a better future for ourselves and our children we need to understand where we've been. I find it fascinating how much has changed and how little, and how much more we can achieve as a country if we challenge ourselves to look beyond our own comfort zones and push for a more equitable world.
My new role allows me the opportunity to share that knowledge with the R4AW team and community so that we can be more intentional about celebrating our past and be inspired as we look towards the possibilities of our future.
I am always interested in sharing what I learn because there is usually a great deal of strength and bravery in the stories that can encourage people.
What is Major Knox Adventures and how did it come to be?
MAJOR KNOX Adventures celebrates the legacy of Major Taylor, Kittie Knox, and many lesser-known Black “out-of-doors” enthusiasts who have paved the way. It’s a series that promotes the radical joy of cycling and other outdoor activities. The aim is to amplify buried legacies, promote joy and healing from historical and present-day trauma experienced outside. The 1928 Legacy Tour is the first tour in the series.
Major Knox Adventures is rooted in love and joy, but it came about through frustration and a desire for defiance. There's a long history of Black folks being intentionally excluded from the outdoors and over-policed by random folks when we do go outside. The threat of racial terror has always been a concern for me, but even more so after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
There was also a build-up of anxiety experienced while being outside. Reading about women going missing while exercising, including Wendy Martinez, a woman who was murdered while on a run in a neighborhood I often pass through, has made me more concerned about going outside. Further, my own experiences with street harassment and being followed have deepened my concerns.
In the summer, I love being outdoors, and I was frustrated that I didn't feel secure enough to go out alone. Following conversations with other people about their apprehensions regarding the outdoors, I sought to create a community where women and people of color could join together to experience the transformative power of the outdoors while overcoming the negative barriers that inhibit us.
How did you uncover the story about Marylou Jackson, Velma Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson, and Constance White?
Over the last few years, I found myself cycling more. One, because I don’t have a car and cycling allows me to branch out further, and two, because I had an increased number of experiences with street harassment while out for walks and runs that caused an increase in my anxiety. As if being in a pandemic wasn’t enough, **side-eye**.
Whenever I get into new spaces I love to research everything I can about the activity. However, initially, I wasn’t seeing any faces that I could relate to. Many bicycle tourists would share their experiences, but none addressed the issues I would face as a Black person or Black woman in the sport. I began researching Black women in bicycle touring. I eventually found a blog post by Dr. Marya McQuirter, a DC-area historian who was working on her dissertation about how Black people experienced pleasure in DC during the 20th century.
In her blog, she described how she stumbled on this picture from the Washington Afro taken in 1928 that showed five women on their bikes. Although she didn’t use their picture for her dissertation, she held onto the newspaper article. Years later she continued to dig and unravel the little we know about these five women and their 250-mi journey from Harlem to DC in what was a really tense time for Black people.
Many bicycle tourists would share their experiences, but none addressed the issues I would face as a Black person or Black woman in the sport.
I was struck by the bravery of these women - doing what they did in 1928 - but also the similarities, I guess, how little has changed in terms of the types of safety concerns you might have as a black woman today making this ride. Does that resonate with you?
Though we don’t know much about their journey, their bravery and athleticism is what hooked me. The one photo we have from their trip greatly resonates with me, and inspired our 1928 Legacy Tour cycling kits.
There is a lot I have to consider when I step outside my front door. What time of day is it? Can I take this particular street? Will someone think my clothes are too sexual? Can I ride my bike or should I Uber because I’m going to be out too late?
However, there’s a bit of comfort knowing I have a cellphone and a tracking device on my arm that could be used in the event of an emergency. Even with these, I’m still nervous. Especially once I step outside the city, because you really never know what you may encounter.
During the time of the original tour, “sundown” towns were a very real concern. Sundown Towns were towns where Black people couldn't be seen in the streets after sunset, and if they were, they were subjected to arrest, beatings, or worse. These towns are often associated with the deep south, but many of these towns existed in states the women traveled through. I would imagine getting to their next destination by a certain time was a concern. As Black women, we face the threat of both racial and gender violence.
MaryLou, Ethyl, Velma, Constance, and Leolya didn’t have the option for gps, which symbolizes just how important sticking together had to have been for them. Going off too far or falling behind could be a concern I’m sure they had to consider. If you make a wrong turn and the group misses you, there was no cellphone to call anyone to locate the missing rider.
Defying any concerns or barriers they could’ve encountered is what I’m sure made the adventure so much sweeter!
Since organizing the 1928 Legacy Tour, I’ve often wondered what could have inspired their adventure. One thing I consider is the impact the Harlem Renaissance could’ve had. The Harlem Renaissance was such a vibrant time of empowerment for Black folks in Harlem. Black people were migrating from the South, many making their way to Harlem, with dreams of prosperity and optimism. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing during this time so I imagine seeing Black folks transcending traditional boundaries motivated them to believe they could too.
We hope this tour will amplify and celebrate a legacy of Black women on bicycles sharing adventure and love for the “great out-of-doors”.
What are the goals of this Legacy Tour?
We hope this tour will amplify and celebrate a legacy of Black women on bicycles sharing adventure and love for the “great out-of-doors”. Prior to learning about this story, I didn’t see myself doing a trip like this. However, sharing stories can really inspire people to embark on activities they never once considered or thought they would be capable of.
One of the most inspiring parts of this story is that once the tour was over they essentially went back to living “regular” lives. It highlights to me there isn’t just one kind of cyclist or person who rides bikes that can do their own type of bicycle adventure. While there is a level of economic and physical privilege that is necessary to train and buy the necessary gear for a 250-mile tour, it is not one that many people cannot attain. Our 2021 team is made up of women of color that are often excluded from the traditional image of a touring cyclist, and I love it because there’s an opportunity to represent more of us and encourage exploring - especially together!
My hope is the original 1928 tour and our tour will inspire folks to head out on their own adventures. I also hope the story of the original 1928 tour will uncover other stories of Black folks experiencing radical joy in the outdoors.
I'd love for you to share a bit about your own transformation over the past few years - you have been at this for a long time now - tell us about how you began using sport for social change and what you've learned about yourself along the way?
I, like many of us, often find myself frustrated with how things in society are going. In college, I would use class assignments to shed light on subjects like the genocide in Darfur or disparities in Philadelphia neighborhoods. As the Student Activities Board president, I used my “power” to help restore our school’s dormant LGBTQ student organization, Uniquely Defined, and co-hosted the school’s first Pride Week. However post-college I had a hard time figuring out how I could be stay engaged.
When I learned how the original Run 4 All Women Harlem to Washington, DC relay used frustrations of the time as a form of resistance in 2017, I felt like I could relate to these women - as runners and as Black women in this world. It was the first time since college I felt I could be engaged again.
Ironically, it was cool to learn about the original 1928 Harlem to Washington, DC tour, and seeing how R4AW was also unknowingly continuing the legacy of Black women radically engaging with the outdoors. Ninety-three years since the original tour and four years since the original R4AW relay, we’re carrying the torch.
As time progressed, I began learning more about how transformative sports can be from healthy living to healing to empowerment to community building. I came into running at one of my lowest points and running helped me love myself in a way I never realized I could and when I was at my lowest, running gave me the encouragement to keep going. I’ve witnessed how sports have literally helped save lives and helped influence an election. It’s a key ingredient in the liberation work I want to do.
As time progressed, I began learning more about how transformative sports can be from healthy living to healing to empowerment to community building.
What can people expect from the Legacy tour and how can they get involved, in person/virtually?
I’d love for everyone to be a part of the community! Community is so important. Training for this tour has involved a lot of solo miles for many of the folks on the team, but throughout the experience, we’ve always had our community to come back to for celebrations of milestones, a few laughs, and encouragement when the miles got tough. In addition to the cyclists in the communities we pass through, we want to share this journey with our virtual tour community. We wanted to make the virtual piece inclusive to challenge folks to radically find joy engaging with the great “out-of-doors”.
If you’d like to register to join us virtually, please visit https://events.elitefeats.com/majorknox21. May 28th - June 6th: get out for your run/walk or cycle and log your miles daily to reach your goal. You can choose from a 25 or 50 Mile Run/Walk or even a 250 Mile Cycle! We also have some great swag available - buttons and socks that pay homage to the original riders and their legacy.
How can people support the ride and your charity partner?
First, follow @majorknoxadventures and @run4allwomen to stay connected to inspiring communities of athletes and to virtually be a part of our journey! We’ve been sharing stories from this year’s riders and other women engaging with the outdoors. We’ll also have opportunities to go live with our team during the tour - connecting with our virtual community.
We also have cool swag to show extra support for our tour and our charity partner, Gearin’ Up Bicycles, DC’s only non-profit bike shop. Gearin’ Up Bicycles’ purpose is to create career development opportunities and teach essential workplace skills to youth from under-served communities while encouraging cycling as a practical, healthy means of transportation. Their work focuses on four pillars: job training, refurbished bicycles, experiential education, and community engagement. To learn more, visit gearinupbicycles.org and follow them on Instagram @gearinupdc.
If taking on the challenge isn’t your thing, you can donate to Gearin’ Up Bicycles on the site. To donate or sponsor directly to the tour, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I think about their resiliency existing in spaces they found pleasure in despite discontentment by others in the space.
Share your hopes and dreams for Major Knox Adventures
The name was chosen because of what Major Taylor and Kittie Knox represent, beyond their accolades. When I think of the stories of these two trailblazers, I think about their resiliency existing in spaces they found pleasure in despite discontentment by others in the space. I think it embodies what I want our adventures to be about. Despite any barriers or dissatisfaction, it may cause others, we are going to find pleasure in the outdoors on our terms.
There are so many incredible people and groups holding space in the outdoors and I'm eager to see what Major Knox Adventures can do to contribute to empowering people to engage in outdoor adventures because it is truly transformative.
Adventures planned this year include cycling tours, like the 1928 Legacy Tour, camping trips, and picnics in the park. Experiencing joy and being outdoors are powerful acts of resistance for our community to experience. Despite the threat of harassment and barriers we may face when we step outdoors, the benefit for our minds, bodies, and spirit is invaluable.
Anything I've missed here that you would like to share about your work?
The hesitation is real, but you can do it! Look out for local outdoor communities in your area, speak with friends, and take the leap. There are lots of outdoor groups that meet around the country. REI has lots of resources and opportunities available for adventure.
Whether it be with Major Knox Adventures or on your own, find some time to get outdoors and be one with nature! Major Knox Adventures has some really cool events coming in the series so if you want to be a part of the fun, follow us on instagram @MajorKnoxAdventures. I’d love to build a community together. Thanks for the opportunity!