Courtesy of Francine Jasper

More than 100 bikers with the Harriet Tubman Freedom Ride arrive at St. James AME Zion Church on July 23 to learn about the Underground Railroad Research Project.

July 30, 2021

From Ithaca to Auburn: Cyclists Honor Harriet Tubman in Inaugural Freedom Ride

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It all started with a bike ride in Selma.

In February 2020, Cornell alumnus Glen Christopher ’78 and hundreds of fellow cyclists biked the same route that the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March walked in 1965.

After settling back home, Christopher got an idea: bring a ride to Tompkins County, recreating the emotions that Selma evoked.

“It was powerful. We were just pumped, because it was so exciting,” Christopher said. “We need to celebrate more of our Black history — the stuff we’re connected to, the people whose shoulders we stand on. [The ride] was an opportunity to connect with history, to celebrate victories and to affirm the work that still needs to be done.”

About 17 months later, that idea became a reality — Christopher and other cyclists from the Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago celebrated their inaugural Harriet Tubman Freedom Ride last weekend with stops celebrating the leading abolitionist. 

On July 24, in partnership with the Southside Community Center, more than 150 cyclists from around the country — including many from the Chicago-based chapter of the cycling club that is named after the first African American world champion in cycling — biked from Ithaca to Auburn, New York, to honor another Black icon. 

Glen Christopher ’78 poses outside the Southside Community Center during the street fair on July 22. (Madeline Rosenberg/Sun Managing Editor)

Riders visited the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center and the Seward House Museum. They visited her gravesite and celebrated the legacy of the woman who brought hundreds of Black Americans to freedom. 

Although he lived just 40 miles down the road as a Cornell undergraduate, Christopher said he had no idea as a student that historical sites honoring Harriet Tubman were nearby. It wasn’t until he returned to Ithaca over the years as a board member of the Alpha Phi Alpha alumni association that he found that those 40 miles would be a perfect bike ride to celebrate a piece of Black history.    

“Nationally, the story of so many African American heroes is lost,” Christopher said, reflecting on the freedom ride. “It’s not discussed, not printed in textbooks. And therefore, our children don’t recognize the positive values and virtues that are part of their ancestry. And when you don’t recognize where you came from, you often don’t aspire to some of the things that you can achieve.”

Cyclists also traveled with the history on their backs — literally. The event’s cycling jerseys included a drawing of Harriet Tubman with her lantern and a symbol of the North Star, as well as a silhouette of a Black woman leading the pack of cyclists. 

“It’s more than a bike ride,” Christopher added. “[The experience] is also an opportunity to sightsee, to learn and touch our history and culture and perhaps some of the most painful aspects of it when we talk about the Underground Railroad.”

On top of the history, the cycling weekend also celebrated contemporary Black joy and culture — a kick-off event was held Thursday at the Southside Community Center, which proceeds from the freedom ride will help support.

Community members and Freedom Ride cyclists dance outside the Southside Community Center during the street fair on July 22. (Madeline Rosenberg/Sun Managing Editor)

Community members danced outside the center Thursday afternoon, while children biked through Plain Street as Bike Walk Tompkins taught bike education. As the evening continued, the crowd heard from Nelson Vails, the first African American cyclist to win an Olympic medal, who led a bike tour the following day. 

For Major Taylor Chicago’s Tina Turner, who did marketing for the event and designed the logo, bringing Vails to Ithaca for the weekend was a chance to inspire younger generations of African American cyclists, recalling her own childhood riding around her neighborhood without knowing she could cycle professionally.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about professional cyclists. But now these young kids can know, you can do this for a living,” Turner said. “Hopefully that seed will be planted today and someone will pursue this as a pathway. We’re paying homage to a past legend, but then we actually get to ride our bikes, cycle on the Underground Railroad with a current living legend.”

Vails told The Sun that he looks forward to the event as it continues for years to come, bringing together cyclists from across the country to visit Ithaca and soak up the history.   

“There’s just so much to learn. I’m excited to be here,” Vails said. “It’s just an honor to have the opportunity to lead. This is just the best time to do something like this, because we’re all free to come together now.”

This story was originally published by The Ithaca Voice as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.