In honor of Black History Month, we interviewed author Charles Kastner who has written multiple books on the 1928 and 1929 ‘Bunion Derbies’. His most recent book on these transcontinental races, Race across America, focuses on the struggles of one of the few black racers participating in the derbies. Eddie ‘the Sheik’ Gardner ran through states that did everything except welcome him, yet persevered and inspired Black Americans throughout this journey.
Do you remember when you first learned about the ‘Bunion Derbies’? Did you learn about Eddie Gardner then as well, or did that come to light throughout your years of research?
My introduction to the Bunion Derbies began while my father-in-law lay dying in a hospital bed in Seattle—a sad start to a topic that would occupy my time for the next twenty-two years. He told me about a footrace he remembered from his childhood that started in Port Townsend and finished in Port Angeles, Washington, a race distance of about fifty miles. At first, his statement seemed hard to believe: I had no idea that people were competing at the ultra-marathon distances so long ago.
Several months after his death, I traveled from my home in Seattle to Port Angeles and began scrolling through rolls of microfiche at the city local library to see if I could uncover any information about the race. This was before the days of digitized newspapers. Finally, in the roll marked “June 1929,” I found articles in the Port Angeles Evening News about what was billed as the “Great Port Townsend to Port Angeles Bunion Derby.” My first reaction was “What is a Bunion Derby?” and my second was “Why would a bunch of ‘average Joes’—lumberjacks, farmers, postmen, and laborers—attempt such a thing?” Of the twenty-two men who started, only eleven finished the event, as they had little training and little understanding of what they had gotten themselves into. Most crossed the finish line with blisters the size of half dollars, shoes oozing blood, and legs so sore and cramped that one finisher had to crawl across the finish line–all this for small cash prizes that ranged from $100 for first to $10 for tenth. One article noted that local officials had dreamed up the event after the famous sports agent Charles C. Pyle held his first-of-its-kind trans-America footrace, or “Bunion Derby” as it was nicknamed by the press, in the spring of 1928. The article also mentioned that a Seattle runner, Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner, had competed in the event. That information piqued my interest.
After I returned home, I went to the main branch of the Seattle Public Library, pulled rolls of microfilm from the newspaper file and began scanning through the sports pages of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer and the Seattle Times. I quickly found article after article about the event starting in late February 1928. I then realized that Seattle’s entry, Eddie Gardner, was black. I wondered about the challenges a black runner would face running in an integrated footrace, especially when the 1928 race took the derby through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, where either by custom or law, blacks and whites were not supposed to compete against each other in sporting events. I also learned that Gardner earned his nickname “the Sheik” from his trademark outfit he wore when he competed in local footraces. Wearing a white towel tied around his head, with a white sleeveless shirt and white shorts, he reminded his Seattle fans of Rudolph Valentino, a 1920’s heartthrob who starred in the silent films “The Sheik” in 1921 and “The Son of the Sheik” in 1926. For the rest of his life, local sports writers referred to him as Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner.
How did you decide to specifically highlight Gardner out of the five African American runners who participated in this race?
Eddie Gardner was the only black runner who could challenge his white competitors for the $25,000 first place prize money in the 1928 derby. The other African American bunioneers were out of contention for any prize money–the top ten finishers with the lowest cumulative times won cash that ranged from $25,000 for first to $1,000 for tenth–and hoped only to complete the 3,400-mile course. Eddie Gardner’s elite status made him the focus of the taunts and death threats that white fans felt free to hurl at him as the bunioneers passed through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Gardner had a brutal passage through these three Jim Crow states. In Texas, he held back from challenging the lead runners out of fear of losing his life. When the race entered western Oklahoma, a white farmer rode behind Gardner with a gun trained on his back, daring him to pass a white man. At that point Eddie was falling out of contest for the prize money, and he had to decide if he wanted to risk his life and resume challenging the lead runners. His courageous decision to do so became a source of pride for the African American communities he passed through. The black press picked up his story, and he became a nation-wide hero to black America.
Is there any specific piece of Gardner’s story that has really stuck with you throughout your years of researching? Or a favorite part of the book itself?
Here’s the one that stands out for me. On the 24th day of the second bunion derby in 1929, Eddie was in third place after covering 1,040 miles since leaving New York City on March 31st. The next day, the derby would cross the Mississippi River into Missouri where Jim Crow segregation was the law of the land. He had been here before in 1928 and he knew what awaited him.
Despite danger, he wanted to make a statement: He ran at a sub-three-hour marathon pace on the short, 22-mile course that passed through St. Louis on the way to the finish at Maplewood, Missouri. And he had added something new to his race outfit. Eddie wore his trademark “Sheik” outfit with a white towel tied around his head, and a sleeveless white shirt, with his number 165 pinned on the shirtfront. A few inches below the number, he had sewn an American flag. It was about six inches wide and was put there for all to see. Poignantly, without words, Gardner announced his return to the Jim Crow South. Death could await him at any crossroad or from any passing car, but he kept going, unbowed by fear. Whites might kill him, beat him, or threaten him, but they could not change the fact that on this day he was running as the leader of the greatest footrace of his age and giving hope to millions of his fellow African Americans who saw him race or who read about his exploits in the black press. In the birth year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eddie crossed the Mississippi River with an American flag on his chest, a man willing to die for his cause.
How did you conduct your research in order to provide such a thorough account of Gardner’s experiences without being able to communicate directly with him? Are there any specific methods you use to conduct this type of research?
Reconstructing the life of someone long dead is a challenge. It’s a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; each piece of information adds something to the emerging picture. Census data and death certificates helped a lot. Another important source was Eddie’s federal personnel file. In the 1950’s he worked for the U.S. Navy, refitting ships at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard near Seattle. Gardner needed a security clearance to work there. To get one, he had to fill out a lengthy background questionnaire, which was verified by Federal investigators prior to his employment. That document fleshed out a lot of his past life. Another source was Gardner’s transcripts and yearbooks from Tuskegee Institute where he attended from 1914-1918. I spent a week at what is now Tuskegee University combing through its archives. These sources combined with hundreds of newspaper articles written about the derbies, and four personal narratives, helped me come up with a detailed picture of Mr. Gardner’s life.
I started with the two bunion derbies, and both were relatively easy to follow. The 1928 edition started in Los Angeles on March 4, 1928, and finished in Madison Square Garden on May 26, 1928, after 84 days and 3,400 miles of daily ultra-marathon racing. Each day’s race or “stage run” as it was known in the vernacular of the derby stopped at a given city or town for the night. The 1929 race reversed course.
After each stage run, a cadre of nationally syndicated reporters that traveled with Pyle filed stories about that day’s race. Combine these syndicated stories with local reporting and I could piece together a detailed account of both derbies. This involved many hours of research to determine what newspapers still survived from a given town, ordering the microfilm through inter-library loan, and then reading through rolls of microfilm and copying any pertinent articles I found. All told, I reviewed more than 75 different newspapers, four first-hand accounts of the races, and a scattering of secondary accounts of the events. In all the articles I read, only one local newspaper, Missouri’s Springfield Daily News, noted that whites had been “especially [unpleasant] to the Negro runners” in Missouri.
Then I turned to the black press. From stories written in such newspapers as Oklahoma’s Black Dispatch, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the California Eagle, and Seattle’s Northwest Enterprise, I quickly realized that there was an untold story about the bunion derbies that the white press ignored, namely, the harassment and death threats Gardner had to endure in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. From there, I tried to flesh out the life stories of the individual runners by following the methods I have outlined in my previous responses.
I noticed on your website that you participate in a variety of marathons with your family, often to raise money for the Benaroya Research Institute and their efforts in finding causes and cures for autoimmune diseases. Would you mind explaining “Team Mary” and your connections to the BRI?
My wife, Mary, and I were both marathon runners and we spent many happy hours together training for races in the 1990’s. Our highlight was running the first marathon of the new century in Hamilton, New Zealand on January 1, 2000. Since then, she has faced several health challenges that has made running impossible for her. Mary has three autoimmune diseases— Relapsing Polychondritis, which attacks her cartilage, Dermatomyositis, which attacks her muscles, and Crohn’s Disease, which attacks her digestive tract. These diseases have made life a daily struggle for her. It’s been heart breaking to watch this brilliant athlete face such difficult challenges, but we’re working to give her and others like her hope.
In 2012, we formed Team Mary to raise money for research conducted at the Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) to fight rare autoimmune diseases. BRI has been in Seattle for more than fifty years and has made major breakthroughs in redirecting faulty immune systems so they don’t attack healthy tissues, especially for rare autoimmune diseases. See https://charleskastner.com/team-mary/
We wanted to start a grassroots effort where neighbors, friends, and those suffering from autoimmune diseases and their family members could come together to do something positive. From running in triathlons, to public speaking, to holding fund raising events, Team Mary has been an active fund raiser for BRI. Mary and I were Peace Corps volunteers and we believe strongly that individual actions can change the world for the better. This is our way to make a difference. If you want to join our team, here’s a way to do so.
As a thank you for contributing $200 or more to BRI, I’ll send you a free autographed copy of Race across America and make you a member of Team Mary. Follow the link to contribute to BRI, write in “Mary Kastner” in the “in honor of” line, and I’ll send the book off to you. https://www.benaroyaresearch.org/support-us/ways-to-give