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DC Sports: The Nation's Capital at Play

DC Sports: The Nation's Capital at Play

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DC Sports: The Nation's Capital at Play

683 página
9 horas
Jul 15, 2015


Washington, DC, is best known for its politics and monuments, but sport has always been an integral part of the city, and Washingtonians are among the country’s most avid sports fans. DC Sports gathers seventeen essays examining the history of sport in the nation’s capital, from turn-of-the-century venues such as the White Lot, Griffith Stadium, and DC Memorial Stadium to Howard-Lincoln Thanksgiving Day football games of the roaring twenties; from the surprising season of the 1969 Washington Senators to the success of Georgetown basketball during the 1980s. This collection covers the field, including public recreation, high-school athletics, intercollegiate athletics, professional sports, sports journalism, and sports promotion.

A southern city at heart, Washington drew a strong color line in every facet of people’s lives. Race informed how sport was played, written about, and watched in the city. In 1962, the Redskins became the final National Football League team to integrate. That same year, a race riot marred the city’s high-school championship game in football. A generation later, race as an issue resurfaced after Georgetown’s African American head coach John Thompson Jr. led the Hoyas to national prominence in basketball.

DC Sports takes a hard look at how sports in one city has shaped culture and history, and how culture and history inform sports. This informative and engaging collection will appeal to fans and students of sports and those interested in the rich history of the nation’s capital.
Jul 15, 2015

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DC Sports - University of Arkansas Press


The Nation’s Capital at Play

Edited by Chris Elzey and David K. Wiggins




Copyright © 2015 by The University of Arkansas Press

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

978-1-55728-677-2 (paper)

978-1-61075-566-5 (e-book)

19    18    17    16    15    5    4    3    2    1

Text design by Ellen Beeler

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials Z39.48-1984.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015936738

To Edwin Bancroft Henderson: teacher, civil rights

activist, and historian of the African American

athlete who represented the very best of Washington, DC


Series Editor’s Preface



1. The Extraordinary History of Cycling and Bike Racing in Washington, DC


2. Less Than Monumental: The Sad History of Sports Venues in Washington, DC


3. The Biggest Classic of Them All: The Howard and Lincoln Thanksgiving Day Football Games, 1919–29


4. Teeing Off against Jim Crow: Black Golf and Its Early Development in Washington, DC


5. Shirley Povich and the Tee Shot That Helped Launch DC Sportswriting


6. Between the Lines: Women’s Sports and the Press in Washington, DC


7. Exercising Civil Rights: Public Recreation and Racial Segregation in Washington, DC, 1900–49


8. The Greatest High School Basketball Game Ever Played: DeMatha vs. Power Memorial, 1965


9. Whips, Darts, and Dips: The Rollercoaster Ride of Men’s Professional Soccer in Washington, DC


10. Uniting a Divided City: The 1969 Washington Senators


11. George Allen, Richard Nixon, and the Washington Redskins: The Drive to Win in an Era of Stalemate


12. A Little Big Man, a Fat Lady, and the Bullets’ Remarkable Season


13. Assuming Its Place among the Ice Hockey Centers of the Nation: The Capitals and Hockey in Washington, DC


14. The People’s Race: The Marine Corps Marathon and Distance Running in the Nation’s Capital


15. Georgetown Basketball in Reagan’s America


16. Washington Baseball Fans: Losers No More


17. Washington Sports Memories, Personal and Collective





Series Editor’s Preface

Sport is an extraordinarily important phenomenon that pervades the lives of many people and has enormous impact on society in an assortment of different ways. At its most fundamental level, sport has the power to bring people great joy and satisfy their competitive urges while at once allowing them to form bonds and a sense of community with others from diverse backgrounds and interests and various walks of life. Sport also makes clear, especially at the highest levels of competition, the lengths that people will go to achieve victory as well as how closely connected it is to business, education, politics, economics, religion, law, family, and other societal institutions. Sport is, moreover, partly about identity development and how individuals and groups, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class, have sought to elevate their status and realize material success and social mobility.

Sport, Culture, and Society seeks to promote a greater understanding of the aforementioned issues and many others. Recognizing sport’s powerful influence and ability to change people’s lives in significant and important ways, the series focuses on topics ranging from urbanization and community development to biographies and intercollegiate athletics. It includes both monographs and anthologies that are characterized by excellent scholarship, accessible to a wide audience, and interesting and thoughtful in design and interpretations. Singular features of the series are authors and editors representing a variety of disciplinary areas and who adopt different methodological approaches. The series also includes works by individuals at various stages of their careers, both sport studies scholars of outstanding talent just beginning to make their mark on the field and more experienced scholars of sport with established reputations.

DC Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play makes clear how important sport has been in one of the most famous and powerful cities in the world. The first of several books in the series to be published on sport in major American cities, the anthology is edited by Chris Elzey and myself and includes seventeen essays written by noted historians and sport studies scholars. Included are essays ranging from an analysis of the Howard-Lincoln Thanksgiving Day football games of the 1920s and a history of the Marine Corps Marathon to a chronicling of the Ted-Williams-led Washington Senators of 1969 and an assessment of the Washington Bullets NBA Championship in 1978. Not unexpectedly, race is a central theme in the book. As a southern city in style, manners, and temperament, Washington, DC, organized itself along a color line. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, sports were segregated at all levels of competition, with black and white athletes unable to participate with or against one another because of the color of their skin. The book is, however, also about fandom, local pride, identity, gender, and community building in a city where politics often seemed far more important and meaningful than athletic accomplishments and participation in sport.

David K. Wiggins


One of the first decisions we made in the process of creating this book was to assemble a list of contributors who would write interesting, meaningful, and important articles on the history of sport in Washington, DC. Ultimately, the strength of the collection is a result of the insights, analysis, and eloquence of those contributors. Their work made our responsibilities as editors much easier and more satisfying. For that, we are truly grateful.

Accompanying each chapter in the collection is a photograph. Many were found with the assistance of Mark Greek, Derek Gray, and Faye Hawkins of the Washingtoniana Division at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, DC. They were generous in sharing their knowledge of the Washington Star Collection and helping us locate several pictures. Archivists Clifford Muse and Tewodros Teddy Abebe in the Archives Division of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center located an image of a halftime celebration of the 1922 Howard-Lincoln football game. That picture is included in the book. Archivist JoEllen ElBashir, also from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, provided leads to other images. Preston Williams and George Solomon proved invaluable in finding a picture of Shirley Povich.

The staff at the University of Arkansas Press provided excellent editorial assistance and advice. Without them, this book would not have been possible. Julie Watkins, Tyler Lail, and Deena Owens were our go-to people and answered all questions. Brian King and David Scott Cunningham oversaw the final production of the book and greatly enhanced it. Mike Bieker gave us his unwavering support from start to finish. His confidence in our abilities helped inspire us to complete this book. Deborah Upton did a marvelous job copyediting the manuscript, and we are very much appreciative of her efforts and expertise.

The idea for the book was first embraced by Larry Malley. He encouraged us to think about questions we would have never considered and steered us in a direction that not only broadened the scope of the book, but also made it more meaningful. Like many scholars of sport down through the years, it was our great fortune to have benefited from his knowledge and expertise. No doubt, we, and the book, are better for it.

Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the patience, honesty, thoughtfulness, and understanding of our wives. Throughout every stage of the project, Karen Elzey and Brenda Wiggins served as important sounding boards, lent us encouragement, and offered invaluable assessment of our work. It is difficult to imagine the book being completed if not for them.


In early fall 1971, the unfathomable occurred: Washington, DC, lost big-league baseball. The national pastime had been a constant fixture in the city almost ever since the Washington Monument was completed in 1884. Generations of Washingtonians had lived their lives against this backdrop of baseball certainty. But now, speedier than a Walter Johnson fastball, it was gone. The city felt less whole, as if a cherished keepsake had gone missing.

The owner of Washington’s former team, the expansion Senators, was Robert E. Short, a multimillionaire with slicked-back hair, a weak chin, and enough business ventures to keep a small army of CPAs busy round the clock. A native Minnesotan who previously owned the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA)—he had transferred the Lakers to California in 1960—Short had taken control of the Senators in late 1968. At the time of the sale, he was also the Democratic National Committee treasurer. After the end of the 1971 season, he shifted the Senators to Texas. He claimed that the nation’s capital had not adequately supported his franchise.¹

Unlike in 1960 when the District was given an expansion team to replace the departed original Senators (the expansion team would play its first season in 1961), Washington in 1971 received no such substitute franchise. And it stayed that way, even though Washingtonians had been told repeatedly that they would get a new team. Understandably, people grew cynical. Shortly after moving away from Washington in 1977, sportswriter Joan Ryan, reflecting on her years covering sports in the nation’s capital, wrote: I miss Washington’s baseball team. Not the deposed Senators, mind you. No, I’m missing that mythical, wonderful-but-only-on-paper, promised-but-stalled-on-delivery, congressionally investigated Washington baseball team that has a banner flying high over RFK Stadium in my imagination. It would not be until 2005 that the District got another franchise. That year, the Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) played their inaugural season.²

For a city routinely thrust into the national spotlight, Washington has had a strange history of being ignored by big-time professional sports. In addition to Major League Baseball’s thirty-four-year hiatus, the city was without an NBA franchise from 1951 to 1973, and it was not until 1974 that it acquired a National Hockey League (NHL) team—meaning that between 1971 and 1973 the only professional sports franchise in town was the football Redskins. That such an important city as Washington had just one team is surprising, especially since it was the then-seventh-most-populated metropolitan area in the country. More surprising, of the ten largest cities, seven had teams in each of the four major professional sports leagues, while the other two—Pittsburgh and St. Louis—had clubs in three.³

What was it about Washington? Why did sports moguls regularly shun it and place teams in other cities instead? In baseball’s case, Congress may have had something to do with it. Before 1971, lawmakers often weighed in on matters relating to baseball in the District of Columbia, all but ensuring that a team remained in the city. (In July 1958, after word circulated that Senators owner Calvin Griffith was trying to move the club out of Washington, South Dakota senator Karl Mundt said: Having baseball as our national sport without a franchise in the Nation’s Capital would be a good deal like having a football season without a team at Notre Dame. It would be like having boxing in America without Sugar Ray Robinson.) But after the expansion Senators left in 1971—the original Senators had moved to Minnesota in October 1960—politicians seemed less willing to intervene in the affairs of baseball in DC. It was as if the powers-that-be in the federal capital did not want the national pastime around.

Maybe it was a consequence of the times. After the Senators bolted in 1971, Congress had much graver issues to consider: Vietnam, the energy crisis, Watergate, skyrocketing inflation, and high unemployment. Not helping matters were baseball’s executives, who cared little about the plight of Washington baseball fans. As the years slipped by, a baseball-less DC became the new normal.

It could also be argued that Washington itself helped keep baseball away. During much of the 1980s and 1990s, the District was the poster city for nearly all that could go wrong with urban America. Crime and drugs were pervasive. Local government was riddled with graft and dysfunction. City finances were in shambles. Neighborhoods were dangerous. Violence was so common that Washington was dubbed the murder capital of America.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, the city was being revitalized. Blighted areas were cleaned up. Crime decreased. Shiny new condos stretched skyward. High-end retailers opened stores. People began moving back into the city, thus reversing the exodus to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs that was initiated by middle-class whites in the 1950s and 1960s and continued by their black counterparts in the decades that followed.

Such change was not uncommon. Since its founding in 1790, Washington has been a city in flux. But its period of greatest transformation may have come during the twentieth century when the District, once a largely inconsequential, sleepy hamlet, grew to become one of the most significant capitals in the world. Fueling that change was the newfound economic and military might of a post–WWII United States and its ever-expanding role on the global stage.

At the same time, Washington developed into a booming metropolis. The number of people living in the greater Washington area swelled from 968,000 in 1940 to 2.91 million in 1970—a three-fold increase. The expansion of the federal workforce after World War II contributed to the growth. Moreover, as the size of government ballooned, professionals whose occupations were loosely connected to politics, such as newspapermen and women and lobbyists and policy wonks and attorneys, joined the legions of federal workers in the nation’s capital. The result was that Washington became a predominantly white-collar city.

Issues of race were glaring. The arrival of tens of thousands of African Americans between 1920 and 1940 aggravated already tense race relations. Located just below the Mason-Dixon Line, Washington had been a slave-holding city until 1862. But the subjugation of black citizens would persist, and for many decades after the Civil War, Washingtonians sorted out social rank and opportunity according to one’s skin color. As a result, African Americans were refused entry to white eateries, hotels, amusement parks, swimming pools, and theaters. Discriminatory housing covenants limited black residents’ access to neighborhoods. White and black children attended different schools. The best jobs were reserved for whites. In July 1919, a race riot tore through the city, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens more. Almost thirty years later, racial discrimination remained just as virulent—a point underscored by the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital in its 1948 report, Segregation in Washington. That same year, the Negro Digest rated Washington one of America’s 10 Worst Cities for Negroes.¹⁰

Sport reflected such bigotry. Playgrounds, swimming pools, parks, golf courses, sports teams, and high school athletics—all were segregated. Before 1947, black boxers and track and field athletes were forbidden from taking part in competitions sponsored by the District branch of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). In 1937, the visiting Syracuse University football squad was forced to withdraw its top running back, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, an African American, from a game against the University of Maryland because Maryland officials threatened to cancel the contest if he played. According to Segregation in Washington, the yearly marbles tournament for local youths prohibited the mixing of white and black contestants.¹¹

Perhaps more insulting for black residents was being told which sporting events they could and could not watch. From 1941 to 1948, Michael Uline, owner of the Uline Arena, the city’s first large-scale sports venue, refused to allow African Americans to attend basketball games and ice shows at his arena but let them watch cruder spectacles like boxing and wrestling—events Uline judged to be more attune with African American sensibilities. Edwin B. Henderson, a local African American sports leader, writer, and champion of civil rights, called Uline’s arena the Palace of Bigotry. In the 1940s, Henderson spearheaded a boycott of the arena. Feeling the financial pinch, Uline ended the exclusionary practice in early 1948.¹²

Though Washington was mostly integrated by the mid-1950s, racial discrimination in sports remained very much alive. The Senators, for instance, did not ink their first African American player until 1957—a full decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. For their part, the Redskins held out until 1962 before a black player—actually it was three players—donned the Burgundy and Gold and played a game. Bobby Mitchell, John Nisby, and Leroy Jackson hold that distinction. Rather than swim in the same pools with African Americans, many white residents during the 1950s and 1960s joined private clubs that had whites-only pools. In 1987, Doug Williams made history when he became the first African American to start as quarterback for the Redskins. Later that season, he propelled Washington to victory in Super Bowl XXII, and was named MVP—a first for a black quarterback. In the years that ensued, Williams—as well as other black athletes, coaches, referees, and sports administrators in the Washington area—continued to feel the sharp sting of racial prejudice.¹³

And yet sport could sometimes transcend difference. Since the early 1970s, the act of supporting the Redskins, by far the city’s most popular team, has remained an emotional and psychological experience shared by Washingtonians of all backgrounds. Indeed, to be a Redskins fan is to be a true Washingtonian. In large part, such self-identification resulted from the massive influx of people who settled in the Washington region after WWII. As journalist Christopher Lydon wrote in the New York Times in 1974, In a city of transients . . . the Redskins are a ‘hometown’ rallying point, a cherished common denominator for a peculiar body of fans.¹⁴

Modern Washington is a metropolis with multiple personalities. It is a tourist destination, brimming with museums and bleach-white marble memorials and guidebook lodestones like the US Capitol and the White House. It is a jumble of neighborhoods, suburbs, and exurbs. Its mental space radiates outward from the District of Columbia and extends into Virginia and Maryland, well beyond the Beltway, creating a schizophrenic hodgepodge of local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Washington is an affluent city, but it also has pockets of poverty. It is a place where people come to hold rallies and have their voices heard. It is a city of official-looking men in blue suits and ties. It has an edgy side. Yet it can evince extraordinary sophistication. It is a city whose summers fill up with bright-eyed college interns. It is the seat of the American government. And it is a metropolis with a distinct international flair. Tens of thousands of immigrants from countries around the globe reside in greater Washington. Foreign embassies and consulates abound.

But what of sport? Is Washington a city distinguished by a passion for it? Many say no. The obsession with the Redskins notwithstanding, the belief is that Washingtonians are fickle and unfaithful fans. Why this is so has been the subject of much discussion. Writing in the Washington Post Magazine in 1994, journalist Tom McNichol attributed DC’s blasé attitude to what makes the city go round. The big game in Washington has always been politics, McNichol observed, and even sports in the city has a political edge. Washington fans know as much about the NFL salary cap and baseball’s antitrust exemption as they do about quarterback ratings and batting averages. Howard Bryant of ESPN The Magazine suggested in an October 2012 article that the reasons why Washingtonians are not exactly gung-ho sports supporters are because DC’s transient population and its changing demographics undercut efforts of local teams to build a loyal constituency and because Washington sports franchises are synonymous with failure.¹⁵

These indictments have been leveled against Washington for years. Some have refuted the accusations. Shirley Povich, for example, the venerable sports journalist for the Washington Post, was quoted in Tom McNichol’s 1994 Washington Post Magazine piece as saying, Washington’s been stuck with a terrible slander. The city’s reputation is that it couldn’t keep its baseball team, but it’s untrue. Measured against the performance of its teams, Washington rated in the upper middle class of cities. Howard Bryant, in his October 2012 ESPN The Magazine article, concluded that given the Nationals’ sensational 2012 season, the Messiah-like reception bestowed upon Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and the wild optimism generated by the city’s other youthful athletic heroes, Washington was finally shedding its timeworn reputation as a sports graveyard. Borrowing FDR’s presidential campaign motto from 1932, the cover of the ESPN The Magazine issue containing Bryant’s piece captured the headiness: Washington, D.C. Happy Days Are Here Again!¹⁶

The fact is that sport has been an essential part of the city’s character almost ever since the late nineteenth century. Washingtonians participated in sport and watched it. They wrote about it and built stadiums and arenas where teams could play. Vast sums of money were invested in franchises, and residents by and large supported those clubs. At times sport united disparate parts of the city, while on other occasions it intensified divisions. Every now and then, Congress and the Supreme Court stepped in to settle sport’s most contentious issues. Many renowned athletes and sports officials came from Washington—a fact that residents proudly embraced and helped define who they were.¹⁷

The essays in this collection illustrate these points—and more. They show the ways in which Washington served as both a trendsetter and focal point for cycling; college and professional football; golf; high school, college, and professional basketball; sportswriting; professional hockey; and distance running. They examine the involvement of American presidents, members of Congress, and local officials in affairs of amateur, intercollegiate, and professional sports. The intersection of gender, women’s sports, and the coverage by the press is explored, as is the post–WWII jurisdictional battle over the integration of Washington’s playgrounds. The interplay between race and sport is the central theme of many chapters.

No edited anthology is wholly comprehensive. This one does not claim to be any different—and for good reason. There are so many fascinating stories about Washington sports that additional volumes could easily be written. For instance, the history of American presidents tossing out the first pitch on Opening Day would make for an interesting chapter, as would the biography of Norvel Lee, a Howard University alumnus who won the light heavyweight boxing title at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. There is also the story of Washington’s Spingarn High School and its pipeline to athletic stardom. Basketball’s Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing, among other notable athletes, attended Spingarn. Essays on the famous African American gymnast Dominique Dawes, who is a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, and the University of Maryland’s women’s basketball team that won the NCAA title in 2006 could also be included.

Think of this collection, then, as a volume of stories about the history of sport in Washington, DC. The ultimate aim of the anthology is to have people—sports fans or otherwise—realize that Washington is more than just a government town. It is also a city in which sport occupies an equally important place. In many ways, to understand Washington is to understand its sport history. And the essays contained herein can help anyone interested in learning more about the nation’s capital do just that.


The Extraordinary History of Cycling and Bike Racing in Washington, DC

John Bloom

On April 15, 1984, Matt Eaton rode his racing bicycle around the national Ellipse for one hour, two minutes, and fifty-three seconds to win the sixteenth annual National Capital Open. The race, the pro-am senior 50-K, was the featured event of the day, and drew 2,000 spectators to watch a tightly packed group of cyclists elbow one another while racing around the oval like Roman chariot drivers. In a less publicized race on the card that day, Justin Gilbert of Metro Delivery won the first annual Golden Wheel two-kilometer race. Unlike Eaton, Gilbert was not on the pro-am circuit, but instead was a bicycle messenger whose profession was delivering parcels on two wheels around the city of Washington, DC. He won his race that day against other bicycle messengers who plied their trade on the asphalt of the nation’s capital. Perhaps unbeknown to many of those present on that spring day, they were witnessing an event that echoed a century-long history of bicycles in the nation’s capital. Like the National Capital Open, this history is connected to both a larger national and international story about cycling, and to a local story of cycling and cycling culture in the District.¹

In the early twenty-first century, it is not uncommon to find bicycle races in the District and its surrounding regions. From DC Velo, a local cycling team affiliated with the United States Cycling Federation, to mountain biking competitions in suburban Virginia and Maryland, cycling is a vibrant competitive and recreational sport in the capital city’s metropolitan area. Within the city and throughout its surrounding regions, cyclists can find hundreds of miles of bike lanes and trails. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, people wandering the streets of Washington can even instantly rent a bike from a self-service kiosk operated by a company called Capital Bikeshare.

Since its formation, however, bicycle riding has been a sport that Washingtonians have experienced from a wide variety of perspectives. For some, cycling has been a sport of pricey equipment and exclusive, even segregated, clubs. For others, it has been part of a gritty livelihood earned on the city’s pavement, delivering packages through dense downtown traffic to lobbyists and political workers. Ironically, a sport that could be highly exclusive and male dominated could simultaneously be a source of freedom, mobility, and even triumph for women, minorities, and working people.

If a bicycle were a living organism, and not a machine created by humans, one might justifiably suspect that a conflict between elite and democratic cultures was part of its DNA. A British company, Reynolds and May, developed the first prototype of a bicycle in 1869.² Reynolds and May’s invention was the first to be actually powered by a rider pushing on pedals—the iconic high-wheeled models known as the ordinary. Expensive, dangerous, and difficult to ride, this model was ridden primarily by the wealthy sporting leisure classes of the Gilded Age. They understood it as a manly activity not open to female participation. In Washington, as in other municipalities, male riders organized themselves into clubs, the first being the Capital Bicycle Club in 1879.³ Yet organizations like the Capital Club did not define cycling in the District for long. In fact, in Washington by the end of the nineteenth century, the bicycle became many things in addition to a leisure pastime for the elite: It was a source of emancipatory mobility for women, a mode of transportation that was faster and more affordable than the horse, and a source of exciting entertainment in the form of races that were among the most popular sporting events of their era. This was especially true in the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth when Washington became a hub of a nationwide bicycle craze.

Americans saw their first bicycle, a more refined version of the Reynolds and May prototype, in the 1870s at such venues as the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.⁴ It was not long before businesses in the United States began to manufacture and sell them to the public, and by the early 1880s, bicycle enthusiasts had begun to organize themselves into clubs and to publish journals devoted to their pastime.⁵ A Washington Post article from 1882 claimed that the first bicycle was introduced to the District in 1878, and reported that there were 175 riders in the city who owned their own bicycles. Costing between $60 and $100, a bicycle was far too expensive for an ordinary worker to afford, and, according to the Post, has prevented [bicycles] from being more generally used.

Despite a rather limited number of people who could pay to participate in the sport, Washington, DC, provided a promising landscape for cyclists. Since the high-wheeled, early models called ordinaries proved to be treacherous vehicles on bumpy roads, cyclists were attracted to areas with smoothly paved surfaces. According to the Post, the District contained a bounty of these. Old bicycle riders assert that no city in this country, or perhaps in the world, presents such a field for bicycle practice as does Washington, the article gushed. "With forty-five miles of concreted streets and over two hundred miles of level gravel roads on the outskirts of the city, the bycicle [sic] rider may be said to be in his paradise, and with such advantages the riders here compare very creditably in point of speed with any in this country."

The description of the District as a bicycle rider’s paradise reflected the language used by members of the city’s first organization of riders, the Capital Bicycle Club. In November 1883, a committee from the club penned an article about cycling in the city for the Wheelman (a publication later known as Outing). The essay used the phrase bicycler’s paradise that headlined the Post article published two years earlier. Like the Post article, and like many other articles published in the Wheelman, it cited broad, asphalt paved streets in a city whose beauty even a Parisian visitor will not deny. According to the piece, the favorable conditions offered by Washington provided the perfect backdrop for the establishment of the club in the shadows of the Capitol rotunda on a frigid day in January 1879.

Indeed, the popularity of the bicycle in DC, and in the United States more generally, grew rapidly over the decades of the 1880s and 1890s. By the end of the century, it was no longer a sport enjoyed exclusively by an affluent upper-middle-class male population. As early as the late 1880s, the increase in national production of bicycles had dropped prices to a degree, while used bikes increasingly became more available. Perhaps most significantly, redesigned bicycles made riding more accessible to a general population. The most important redesign, which came in the mid-1880s, was the creation and production of the safety bicycle, the early prototype of the contemporary bike with evenly sized wheels and a free-wheel mechanism linked to the pedals by a chain. Together with the introduction of the pneumatic tire, which replaced the bulky and bumpier solid rubber tire, the popularity of bike riding boomed between 1889 and 1895.

The 1883 article in the Wheelman, however, provides a window into the earliest years of bicycle riding in the District. It reflected a bicycle subculture centered upon associations of white, affluent, and middle-class men engaged in expressions of manliness and masculinity, sensibilities fairly typical of middle-class sporting cultures of the late nineteenth century. Club members would typically gather for well-organized runs around the city and into the countryside on a regular basis. In their clubhouse—located in the LeDroit Building on the southwest corner of Eighth and F Streets, NW—Capital members would store their bikes, make repairs, take them apart, and rebuild them just for recreation. The space served as a locus for spontaneous social gatherings where many a watermelon has been cut and many a cider jug has come in full and gone out empty.¹⁰ Members would also play music and engage in debates over the merits of various bicycle components. When the weather outside prohibited riding, they would invent bicycle competitions appropriate to an indoor space. For example, they regularly engaged in stand still matches in which riders would mount their high-wheeled ordinaries and attempt to stay balanced for as long as possible (the record was two hours and twenty-two minutes).¹¹

Members of the club came from a variety of elite and middle-class occupations. Some held prominent positions in the federal government. Leland Howard, one of the committee members who authored the Wheelman article, was a prominent government entomologist who, in 1894, became the director of the federal Bureau of Entomology. His work established him as a leader in the creation of strong government support for agricultural pest control.¹² Yet despite the social prominence individual members of such clubs enjoyed, many citizens of the District were concerned about these new machines and the dangerous potential for accidents with them, day or night. According to the authors of the article, which doubled as a self-promotion piece, complaints about dangerous bicycle riding were entirely unfounded and based only upon prejudice from those wishing to exploit their inherent right to grumble and oppose the silent innovation.¹³

Nevertheless, in a sign of members’ social prominence, the Capital Bicycle Club had a friend in District commissioner Major Thomas P. Morgan. After imploring the club to establish rules of the road that might assure a public concerned about safety, Morgan expressed his general support for the organization and its activities. According to the Wheelman article, he stated, I approve of bicycling. My duties as chief of police enable me to see a great deal in which the young men of Washington are concerned, and as a result of my observation I shall do all in my power to encourage honest, manly exercise promoting the physical health of participants, and tending to keep them out of bar-rooms and other questionable resorts.¹⁴

Like other sports emerging in the late nineteenth century, cycling negotiated a fine line between manly self-control and masculine physicality. The quote attributed to Morgan, in which he positions cycling in contrast to bar-rooms and other questionable resorts, suggests that cycling clubs labored to establish themselves as consistent with Victorian ideals of emotional restraint. On their regular Wednesday and Sunday runs, members of the Capital Bicycle Club displayed this restraint to the public. The white-capped and blue-uniformed riders were renown for their disciplined organization and intricate drills on the city’s celebrated paved streets. Club members were careful to comply with Morgan’s expectations, passing a resolution that stated: Any member becoming intoxicated on a club run, or who shall be under the influence of liquor while wearing the club uniform shall be expelled.¹⁵ According to the Wheelman article, "It has always been a matter of surprise to clubs and wheelmen from abroad that the order and discipline maintained in the Capital Club, mounted or un-mounted, whether at home or abroad, while together as a club, are worthy of a well-regulated military company."¹⁶ In 1884, members brought this discipline into their lives outside of the club, agreeing to wear their bicycle breeches to work with their business suits at least three days a week.¹⁷

Yet such controlled displays of riding prowess were clearly not entirely satisfying to members, many of whom looked forward to escaping the city and venturing into the nearby countryside of Virginia and Maryland. The authors of The Wheelmen article wrote:

There is an exhilaration in a coast down a stony hill, in a source of danger on every side, which makes even a timid rider feel that he has more thoroughly lived in an hour of such riding than a week of bowling over asphalt. It is this feeling which takes Capital men miles away from home upon every opportunity, and which has caused a thorough exploration of the neighboring counties of My Maryland and the Old Dominion.¹⁸

Other club members enjoyed various forms of trick riding. In a stunt that would impress any contemporary BMX cycler, Herbert S. Owen rode a fifty-four-inch ordinary down the steps of the United States Capitol.¹⁹ Capital Club member Rex Smith later performed the same feat.²⁰

Although members used their clubs to exhibit masculine physical prowess tempered by disciplined manly restraint, many also used their clubs as relaxed homosocial spaces in which men could cast aside notions of Victorian decorum. In a Washington Post article headlined None Like the Queers, one exclusive club in the District called the Queer Wheelmen was celebrated as being favorites among cyclists for wearing unique costumes. At a citywide bicycle parade, members dressed as clowns and wore cornucopia caps and white shoes. Such distinctive ensembles earned the Queer Wheelmen a prize for best appearance. Every man had a zobo instrument, the Post wrote, and they made the night hideous with weird music.²¹

Even the relatively staid Capital Bicycle Club created its own carnivalesque ritual. In a parody of Frederick Arthur Bridgeman’s orientalist painting, Procession of the Sacred Bull Anubis, displayed at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, Capital members in the winter of 1887 created their own Procession of the Sacred Cat. Dressing in vaguely Middle Eastern costumes, with some members looking like women, they mounted a stuffed cat’s head on the handlebars of an ordinary and had their portraits taken.²²

As early as 1880, the Capital Club also began to sponsor annual races. While such competitions occasionally involved riders from out of town, the early cycling scene in Washington was relatively isolated from the activities of clubs in other cities, such as New York and Philadelphia. Local racers preferred to stay in the area around the Capital. The Capital Club’s first series of annual races took place on June 29, 1880, on an asphalt track at Iowa Circle. The club reported that 5,000 people attended the races.²³ Such events were clearly popular, and they would become even more so as the sport grew in popularity over the next decade.

In 1890, Outing magazine, by now one of the leading sports publications in the country, once more lauded Washington as a city with both a vibrant sporting scene and an active cycling culture.²⁴ In a profile entitled Athletics in Washington, Herbert Janvrin Browne commended the District’s paved roads, thus echoing the praise that first appeared in the Post and the Wheelman almost a decade earlier. The roads that lead to Washington will in the future be as certain in their quality as the roads that led to Rome, wrote Browne. This is a paradise for lovers of healthy recreation in the open air. Through the smooth streets glide thousands of bicycles and tricycles.²⁵

Browne’s article mostly described the various athletic clubs that called Washington home, particularly those that began as cycling clubs. In the article, he celebrated the affluence and social prominence of club members and the opulence of their clubhouses. Indeed, his article had a clearly elitist tone. For example, he praised the largest club of the time, the Georgetown-based Columbia Athletic Club (CAC) for rescuing Analostan Island—once occupied by Senator James M. Mason, who served as a Confederate diplomat in Britain—from disrepute after it had become a resort of negro roughs and gamblers.²⁶ After quoting Article II of the club’s constitution—to encourage all manly sports, promote physical culture and for social purposes—Browne described in detail the luxurious accommodations of the club, which included basement bowling alleys, a swimming pool, a Turkish bath, reception rooms, a library, as well as locker rooms with bath facilities, dressing rooms, and almost 300 lockers. Upstairs, the clubhouse featured a fifty-by-ninety-foot gymnasium, a twenty-lap-to-the-mile running track, fencing rooms, and boxing halls.²⁷

Browne not only celebrated the athletic clubs in the vanguard of bicycle culture in the city, he associated cycling itself with a utopian vision of what the bicycle as a piece of technology could bring to society. He wrote, The day is within coming distance when bicycles will be as numerous and cheap as sewing machines, and as universally used in America as skates on winter canals in Holland. When that day comes the health of America will improve, the death rate will drop a notch, and several medical colleges will nail up their doors.²⁸ While still connoting the idea that the pastime of the elite would lift up the masses, the sentiment that Browne expressed here also contained a utopian vision that the bicycle might become a democratizing force, one that could bring swift transportation to the masses who would have otherwise had a hard time purchasing and caring for a horse. Seeing this democratic spirit reflected in the cycling scene of Washington, Browne noted that there was a Ladies’ Bicycle Club organized to encourage the timid fair in attempting the innovation of riding wheels. Browne wrote that Washington even possessed probably the only colored bicycle club in the United States, if not the world.²⁹

Actually, by the late 1890s, there were several local clubs that African American cyclists had organized, and by making bicycle mobility more accessible to all, the safety bicycle had offered women a newfound freedom of mobility. Browne’s tone of surprise in reporting of African American and female involvement, however, reflected the exclusivity and sense of entitlement that held sway over the culture of white male cyclists. In the 1883 Wheelman article, for example, the authors revealed a white supremacist orientation when they described the joys of runs to the Cabin John Bridge by recalling, quiet breakfast parties, with luscious spring-chicken (the genuine article), and flaky ‘flour doin’s,’—of snowy whiteness by contrast with the kindly black face of the ‘old aunty’ who rules the ‘cook-house.’³⁰

Such commentary certainly showed that club members were not particularly reluctant to disseminate the harmful stereotypes commonly directed toward African Americans during the Jim Crow era. However, the city’s black bicyclists were much more directly affected by discrimination reflected in the application of cycling statutes and safety laws. In the 1883 Wheelman article, the authors recalled that many cyclists in the city reacted with fear when police arrested and fined an African American rider $20 for colliding with and injuring a pedestrian. Many of these same riders were relieved, however, after one of their own avoided any encounter with the law following a similar incident. In fact, the victim and rider became great friends. The Capital Club authors noted that the local press provided positive coverage of riding, even suppressing accounts of accidents.³¹

In 1895, the Washington Post reported an arrest of Ebenezer Williams, a colored bicycle professor, and William Sedwick, a colored grocer, for violating an 1881 ordinance that required cyclists to walk their bikes after dark if it was not outfitted with a lamp. Rather than simply being asked to dismount, they were instead placed in the Georgetown jail. The article made light of the incident, which took place after members of a local African American cycling club were caught returning home in the dark after a road race had gone later than expected. After Williams and Sedwick were arrested, the rest of the group scattered, some returning later with lanterns. They were all pretty badly scared, the article concluded. Safe to say, they won’t try to ride through Georgetown again without lights.³²

Browne was correct to predict that the bicycle would become more popular among a general population, but as African Americans entered the sport, they did not find themselves particularly welcomed. Meanwhile, the nation’s leading organization of cyclists, called the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), was debating whether the organization should be exclusively white. After rejecting proposals to exclude black members at national conventions in 1892 and 1893, the organization limited membership in 1894 to any amateur (white) wheelman of good character, 18 years of age or older.³³

Perhaps LAW was reacting to an increasing national presence of African American cyclists involved in the sport. Certainly by the mid-1890s, cycling had become very popular among African Americans in Washington. By 1895, the Washington Post estimated that there were between 400 and 500 black bicycle riders in the city. In the early 1890s, clubs like the Capital City Bicycle Club competed quite successfully in races in nearby cities like Richmond.³⁴ By 1900, the all-black Cross-Country Club organized a set of races to celebrate that year’s Fourth of July.³⁵ Facing discrimination by police and other riders in the District, and the color line within LAW nationally, African American riders in DC moved to form their own national organization. In September 1895, Samuel E. Lacy, a notary public from Northwest DC, began to work with black bicyclists in the District and in other cities to form a separate, all–African American, national cyclist organization. At the center of the movement in Washington were two core African American bicycling clubs: the Ideal Club, and the Capital League Wheelmen. In 1895 the Washington Post praised the formation of an all-black organization of riders, arguing that even if only a fraction of the total African American population of cyclists in the city joined, they would outnumber the seventy-three LAW members who resided in the District.³⁶

Despite the color line, the local chapter of LAW debated whether or not to allow African American riders to participate in their annual parade in July 1896. Some member organizations threatened to boycott if the parade was integrated. In the end, the group passed a resolution allowing black riders to participate since it was seen that no action preventing them could be taken.³⁷ Clearly not feeling embraced by the local chapter of LAW, Lacy led a group of African American cyclists to form the District League of Colored Wheelmen in August 1896. More than a collection of cycling enthusiasts, the organization explicitly stated that its mission was to battle discrimination by both white riders and the police. The league’s members also promised to organize a mammoth colored bicycle parade that would include nearly every colored wheelman and wheelwoman in the city dressed in fancy costume for an exhibition ride through the streets.³⁸

The exclusivity of bicycle club culture became challenged in another arena as the sport boomed in the late nineteenth century: racing. As was true in many other competitive sports, the ethic of amateurism governed participation in bicycle racing during its early years in the 1880s. While lauded for creating a pure and wholesome playing field untainted by worldly contaminations, amateurism operated in fact to restrict participation in sports only to those wealthy enough to have excessive leisure time. By the end of the 1890s, however, professional racing had developed into a popular and profitable spectator sport as racing grounds became connected more with commercial amusements than private clubs.

What is more, the local racing scene provided opportunities for cyclists not affiliated with a club to emerge as local heroes, overshadowing the influence of clubs upon the sport. In 1893, L. C. Wahl, a recent transplant from Minnesota who worked in the Government Printing Office, established a twenty-four-hour cycling record on Conduit Road. The sports gossip columnist in the Washington Post, however, noted that he received very little encouragement during his race from members of local bicycle clubs. "The fact that Wahl has not been given much of an indorsement [sic] should not cut any figure in his being given full credit for his performance. In fact, the public generally will likely think more of the plucky young man for his determination in going through the trial without the influences of a large gathering of riders to cheer him on."³⁹

Although amateur clubs like the Capital Bicycle Club or Georgetown’s Columbia Athletic Club organized races by the early 1880s, there were professional riders who nevertheless participated in many of these races. The 1883 Capital Club races at Athletic Park included professional riders from England and the United States.⁴⁰ Even the early races in Washington rapidly became popular. Articles about cycling in the Washington Post received billing on par with those about baseball. The Athletic Park grounds constructed for the 1883 contests contained a grandstand and field stands with seating for 5,000. Undercutting its own principles, the Capital Club paid out a total of $500 in prize money and medals to winners of races.⁴¹

The Columbia Athletic Club first promoted its races on their Analostan Island quarter-mile track. Later, the Columbia Club held races at Columbia Field, near the intersection of Seventeenth and C Streets, Northwest.⁴² Unlike those at the Capital Club, Columbia members attempted to remain entirely amateur. Browne’s October 1890 article in Outing praised Columbia as setting an example for other clubs in the city with regard to the amateur ideal. Browne wrote somewhat hopefully, "One word can be said of not only the Columbia Club, but of all the athletic associations of Washington: No taint of professionalism has ever appeared in any form or in the slightest degree. Amateur athletism [sic] in the District of Columbia is imbued with the fairest spirit of honorable emulation."⁴³ In addition to races on the track, cycling enthusiasts participated in long distance road races. Columbia Club member W. T. Robertson, for example, took part in an 1892 relay from Washington to Pittsburgh. In cooperation with other clubs, they hoped to complete their 290-mile ride in twenty-two hours.⁴⁴

In fact, from an early stage, racers and clubs struggled with one another over the issue of professionalism and corruption in racing. In July 1886, an up-and-coming racer named W. E. Crist requested that the Capital Bicycle Club manage a race called the Flint Challenge Cup. The club, however, refused. Later that summer, during an executive board meeting, members charged that Crist had not only received payment for riding in the Flint Challenge race, he had taken money specifically to alter the results. A resolution before the club’s board charged that Crist and another racer

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