Books

Syracuse University Press
Syracuse, New York 13244-5290

Race Across America

Eddie gardner and the Great Bunion Derbies

On April 23, 1929, the second annual Transcontinental Foot Race across America, known as the Bunion Derby, was in its twenty-fifth day. Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner, an African American runner from Seattle, was leading the race across the Free Bridge over the Mississippi River. Along with the signature outfit that earned him his nickname—a white towel tied around his head, white shorts, and a white shirt—Gardner wore an American flag, a reminder to all who saw him run through the Jim Crow South that he was an American and the leader of the greatest footrace in the world.

Kastner traces Gardner’s remarkable journey from his birth in 1897 in Birmingham, Alabama, to his success in Seattle, Washington, as one of the top long-distance runners in the region, and finally to his participation in two transcontinental footraces where he risked his life, facing a barrage of harassment for having the audacity to compete with white runners. Kastner shows how Gardner’s participation became a way to protest the endemic racism he faced, heralding the future of nonviolent efforts that would be instrumental to the civil rights movement. Shining a bright light on his extraordinary athletic accomplishments and his heroism on the dusty roads of America in the 1920s, Kastner gives Gardner and other black bunioneers the attention they so richly deserve.

“When 199 men toed the line for the start of the first derby in Los Angeles, few observers thought any of the men would survive daily ultramarathon racing along a grueling thirty-four-hundred-mile course and that those who did risked early death by overstressing their hearts from the strain of such exertion.  The bunioneers would run the length of U.S. Highway Route 66, the “mother road,” from Los Angeles to Chicago and then on to the finish in New York City.  In 1928, Route 66 was mostly an unpaved dirt road that crossed the Mojave Desert and ascended and descended the Rocky Mountains in Arizona and New Mexico.  The route then took the men across the muddy Texas Panhandle, the rolling red-dirt hills of Oklahoma, and the ancient, eroded Ozark Mountains in Missouri before reaching the Mississippi River at Saint Louis.  From there the men would reach better hard-surfaced roads from Illinois to the race’s end at Madison Square Garden in New York City. There had never been anything like it before—they would be making the playbook for trans-America racing as they went.”

From the Book

“On April 23, 1929, the bunion derby returned to the Jim Crow South.  On that day, Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner, an African American runner from Seattle, Washington, was leading the bunion derby across the Free Bridge over the Mississippi River that separated Illinois from Missouri.  He was flying, blazing over the short, by derby standards, twenty-two-mile course at a sub-three-hour marathon pace. Eddie was wearing the distinctive outfit that earned him his nickname, a white towel tied around his head and a white sleeveless shirt and white shorts, but he had added something new to his outfit. Below his racing number, “165,” he had sewn an American flag, a reminder to all who saw him run that he was an American and, that day, the leader of the greatest footrace in the world. He was setting himself up for another collision with southern segregation.”

“On the derby’s last day on Route 66, black Chicagoans lined the road starting fourteen miles west of the city to cheer Eddie on as he raced by. Most of them had left the South either as children or as adults in search of a better life.  They knew what Eddie had endured from firsthand experience.  They had come to cheer on a man who had risked everything to compete at the highest level of the new sport of trans-America racing and in turn, through his courage, became a rallying point for their brothers and sisters still trapped in the South.”

“Eddie Gardner was living the words of W. E. B. Du Bois to demand his rights as an American citizen to compete whenever and wherever he pleased, and he risked his life to do so.  That act of risking life and limb at the hands of irate white spectators made him a foot soldier in the battle for racial equality in America. He was a harbinger of the thousands of Freedom Marchers who would take the same risk when they challenged injustice in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.”