BlackFacts Details

The 1928 Bunion Derby: America’s Brush with Integrated Sports

In the following account sports historian Charles Kastner describes the Bunion Derby, the 1928 cross country footrace that captured the nation’s attention in the spring of 1928 and the remarkable group of black runners who participated in that event. For a detailed discussion of the race, see Kastner’s Bunion Derby: The First Footrace Across America.

From March 4 to May 26, 1928, a unique event grabbed the attention of the American public—an eighty-four day, 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, nicknamed the bunion derby. The 199 starters included five African Americans, a Jamaican-born Canadian, and perhaps as many as fifteen Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, representing about ten percent of the competitors.  The rest were white.  The derby consisted of daily town-to-town stage races that took the men across the length of Route 66 to Chicago, then on other roads to the finish in Madison Square Garden. All were chasing a $25,000 first prize, a small fortune in 1928 dollars.  

Given the racial climate of 1928, black participation in the bunion derby seemed a risky venture, better suited for more tolerate racial times, either the 1870’s when professional distance racing was the rage and men of all races were accepted in to its fold, or our modern age, when the sight of African runners leading endurance events is an everyday occurrence. The 1928 race would take the men into the Jim Crow segregated South, where most whites believed blacks lacked the ability to concentrate for anything longer than the sprint distances, and had no business competing against whites.

Bunion derby organizer Charles C. Pyle looked back, longingly, to the 1870’s when the craze for professional distance running gripped the land, and sports promoters could make a fortune sponsoring these events.  In those days, most towns and cities had their own indoor tracks, where “pedestrians” raced in six day “go as you please” contests of endurance.  Participants were free to run, walk, or crawl around these tracks