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Signs along the Underground Railroad route in Indiana
With the help of countless people, thousands of African Americans escaped from slavery by following various paths to freedom, hiding in the outbuildings and homes of sympathetic Americans along the way. Many of their routes headed north following the rivers and waterways until reaching ultimate freedom in Canada. Now there is a bicycle route that explores this historic time – traveling from Mobile, Alabama to Owen Sound, Ontario, the 2,100 mile route uses the historic “Follow the Drinking Gourd” spiritual as a guide.
The route was developed through a partnership between Adventure Cycling Association and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Minority Health. The concept of creating the route highlights this cultural struggle while also celebrating diversity and promoting health and recreation. Being recognized by a National Trails Partnership Award would highlight how our unique partnership was mutually beneficial. Our hope is that other trail organizations become inspired to engage health orientated or other non-traditional partners to broaden their approach and appeal to more American’s of all ages and interests.
The partnership was born in 2004 when the Center for Minority Health (CMH), based in the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School for Public Health, was looking for innovative ways to promote physical activity in their outreach programs based in Pittsburgh. Dr. Stephen Thomas, Director of the CMH was introduced to the Adventure Cycling Association and the organization’s proposal for a new long-distance bicycle route honoring the Underground Railroad. The idea sparked and the two organizations began discussion on how a partnership could mutually benefit their individual goals.
Members of the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club
Adventure Cycling Association’s mission is to inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle, and explore the landscapes and history of America for fitness, fun and self-discovery. For over thirty years, Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) has provided the resources for bicycle travel. However, ACA is keenly aware of missing populations in bicycling and, more specifically, bike travel. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), bicycling is the most popular outdoor recreation activity in America; however, African Americans make up only 6% of the cycling population. Of ACA’s 44,000 members, the majority is white and male. In order to truly achieve our mission, ACA felt outreach to more demographics was timely and important.
For the CMH, known for their creative methods of promoting public health initiatives to the minority populations of Pittsburgh, the concept of traveling great distances by bicycle was as intriguing as it was daunting. None of the program directors bicycled more that an occasional recreational ride and none had ever toured. Yet, the idea of combining history with physical recreation held merit. For CMH, the challenge to eliminate ethnic health disparities requires interventions that are scientifically sound and culturally appropriate. Lack of physical activity is a risk factor in several leading causes of preventable disease, and minority populations are especially at risk; blacks are 2-3 times more likely to develop diabetes compared to whites (CDC, 2004). CMH saw the potential to strengthen cross-cultural ties and promote lifelong health through cycling, a form of physical activity available to people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Bike route riders tour Buffalo’s historic sites
As ACA began to research the various paths that freedom seekers took previous to the Civil War, the two organizations began meeting regularly. The route concept materialized through countless conversations with UGRR historians and organizations dedicated to the Underground Railroad story (such as the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program, an agency dedicated to the authentication and preservation of the Underground Railroad story and sites).
During route development, ACA and CMH began addressing strategies for creating awareness of the route while increasing accessibility, not only to the route, but to the history as well. Along with the sites and regional history recorded on the maps themselves, additional resources for the route were developed on the ACA’s website and a media kit complete with photos was also created. In turn, CMH designed a new website that complimented their work and their involvement in the UGRR. Through the vast network of contacts of both organizations, an Advisory Board of experts encompassing various skill sets including history, recreation, transportation, culture and civil rights, were brought together to advise the project goals and outcomes.
When ACA and CMH jointly announced the creation of the route in February 2007, media interest began to build after a story ran on the Associated Press. When the tours were announced, media coverage heightened. Along with a contingent of local papers covering the tours, National Public Radio, Smithsonian, USA Today, Bicycling, Utne Reader, Newsday, Jet, Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette also featured the UGRR story. The UGRR has received more media attention than any other route in ACA’s thirty-two year history and we credit the partnership for giving the route credibility and a unique platform of appeal.
On a trail along the Underground Railroad route
This credibility led to other major outcomes. A producer at WPXI Pittsburgh produced an award winning television special entitled “Biking Through Black History.” A collaborative effort was forged to promote the UGRR through WebJunction, a public library initiative supported by the Gates Foundation. WebJunction promotes programming using the route, history, and minority health as topic areas for their members.
The plan for making the route more accessible to recreational cyclists generated the concept of creating day trip maps and inspired a partnership with Brown County Tourism, yielding 10,000 free, printed maps of three, short loops around historic Ripley, Ohio. This map, available via download from the ACA website, will serve as the template for future day trip maps and community based partnerships.
One of the most beneficial things to come out of this unique partnership is the relationship forged between our organizations. Though we have very different approaches, ACA a national scale non-profit, CMH a localized academic based institution, the project became an opportunity to stretch our thinking and broaden our approaches. We built trust with each other (despite the miles between us) through our bi-weekly, conference call meetings. During these meetings we learned from each other’s expertise. For example, ACA is much more sensitive to the images we use in our print and on-line publications.
Corridor Map of entire route
We became more cognizant of the barriers that prohibit Americans from bicycling and how to overcome those through our outreach efforts. CMH, in turn, became active cyclists, participating in the 2007 tours, both the self-contained trip which covered all 2,100 miles of the route, and the supported 250-mile adventure into Canada. Making cycling a part of their outreach efforts led CMH to start The Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club (PMTCC) in 2005 with five members; today, thanks to the enthusiasm of members like CMH program manager Mario Browne, is up to seventy-five.
With the help of ACA’s Pedal Pioneers: A Guide to Bicycle Travel with Kids, the PMTCC began actively working with the youth demographic. Our organizations have struggled with funding, time, diverging interests and outside influences, but the relationship and the project have blossomed into one of the most successful enterprises in our history. And the best part – our success is a benefit for anyone interested in combining history and bike travel. The UGRR is America’s story – and now the public can enjoy its lessons.
For more about Adventure Cycling and the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route: http://www.adventurecycling.org/ugrr
Learn more about theUniversity of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health at http://www.cmh.pitt.edu/urb.asp
Read more about long-distance rides and trails at www.AmericanTrails.org/resources/long.