In 1880, the most famous athlete in America was not a baseball player, but a track athlete: Haitian-American pedestrian Frank Hart (1858-1908).
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
He had his own trading cards and everything!!
Pedestrianism was the forerunner of the ultra-marathon, in which athletes ran, walked, or crawled around an oval track over the course of many days. The person who traveled the most distance won. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, it was America’s most popular sport.
In one of Hart’s best-known races, in Madison Square Garden from April 5-10, 1880, Hart put in a stunning 565 miles – averaging 94 miles a day for six days. Hart made a lot of money, raking in over $100,000 during his career. (That’s roughly $2.7 million today.) Even more importantly, he asserted his “constitutional right to walk in public, without regard to any previous conditions whatever.” Born when slavery was still legal and competing while Jim Crow laws flourished, he proudly challenged racism through unmatched athletic excellence.
Despite his resounding victories, the American media often minimized his triumphs. See, for example, this magazine cover that depicts Hart struggling to finish a race that he actually won.
Although frequently heckled and attacked (and once surviving a poisoning attempt during a race), Hart demonstrated the heart of a champion.
We can take up his work today. African-American pedestrians are still 50% more likely to be hit or killed while walking: “For some, a fundamental paradox exists between the public health benefits of active transportation and the potential negative consequences of a simple walk to the store.” Our active community can best honor the achievements of African-American athletic heritage when we work to produce safe and equitable access for all who participate. (see Jennifer Roberts, "There is No Green Book for Walking.")
Images used with kind permission of www.kingofthepeds.com
Be sure to check out KIng of the Peds for more on the long history of pedestrianism.
(With thanks to Dr. Bridgett Williams-Searle)