Cycling the Route To Emancipation

Feb 1st, 2024

When I met Talib in February of 2021, we were in the front parking lot of Cycleast. I’d spent the previous day on a date, doing the original Black History Bike Ride (BHBR) route, quietly struggling to complete the 8.46 miles on my single-speed bike. So when I spotted him, I had some questions… Was he the guy who hosted the initial Black History Bike Ride in June? And if so, why didn’t he put a warning on his online route about it being so hilly? We laughed and soon became friends.

Our friendship evolved when I began to help organize and lead BHBR events around the city, and when Talib suggested we film a documentary of our 350-mile ride from Austin to Galveston for Black History, I had zero questions. Similar to when we met, I was unaware (and unafraid) of the challenges that lay ahead, but after two years of adventure biking, leading Black History Bike Rides, and securing a geared bike from Rocky Mountain, I was better prepared. Nothing however could have prepared me for the impact this trip would have on my own life.

a man on a bike
The author posing on his bike
Ariel Marlowe

Our trip began on May 11th, with the first 87-mile leg starting at the Texas African American History Memorial on the State Capitol grounds and ending at Lake Somerville State Park. It was the warmest and most gravel-filled day of the long weekend, which was exactly what we needed on the first day.

Along the way, we had two planned stops: The Freedom Colony Moab in Lexington and the Antioch Church in Ledbetter, where we would meet Gladys Clemmons, the church secretary, who shared their nearly 150 years of history with us. Our visit at the Antioch Church was meaningful because it reminded me of the one I attended when I was young. From the soft velvet carpet to the heavy, reverent air, I felt like I’d stepped into a time capsule where the only thing missing was my family. At the time, I had not seen them for a few years, so the nostalgia became a bit overwhelming. After stepping outside and taking a moment to gather myself, Ms. Gladys let me ring the bell before we rolled out toward our campground for the evening. 

a white church
Ariel Marlowe

The second day we set off for Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) to meet Dr. Marco Robinson, Associate Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice. This was the only day I cracked a bit. It may have had something to do with the elevation gain. It may have been the headwinds. Or it may have been due to me being out of my comfort zone.

On most trips I’m focused on taking care of my own needs, and sometimes, when leading a group, I’m responsible for their safety and needs as well. So when our plan shifted and I began to get cranky and tired, I had to practice something new: leaning on and trusting those around me for help and energy. As we rolled into PVAMU, I felt so fortunate for my brothers and this safe place for us to rest and learn. We completed our 91-mile day when we arrived at Stephen F. Austin State Park for the evening. 

The third day began with rainfall. The drizzle that welcomed us during the rollout, became a full downpour by the time we turned off the park road. After a short reconvene with the production crew, a gear stowaway, and a mini hype sesh/dance party we set back off on our 70 mile day. Because of the weather, we didn’t stop often, but one stop was very memorable. We’d just dried out in between showers, when we decided to take a 15 minute break under a gas station overhang. While sitting there, a storm hit that extended our wait.

After about 40 minutes, we set out fully rested, energized, and grateful we’d waited it out. However, what we didn’t realize was that we were actually traveling in the same direction as the storm. After 10 minutes we ended up riding headfirst back into the maelstrom we had just waited out! What was a great annoyance at the time, gave us something to laugh about at camp that evening. This day also held my favorite part of the route… our time at the Levi Jordan Historic Plantation Site, where we met the site educators Kennedy and Will. It meant a lot to have those young Black educators there to host us, to share the history of the site, and to laugh at our stories after the long day. 

a group of men on a stoop
Ariel Marlowe

Our final day would end with us at Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth. It was another intermittently rainy day, but at least we knew there was Buc-ee’s stop not too long into the route. Shortly after stopping there for snacks, we crossed the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge into Surfside, for a brief reflection of how much we’d done to get our feet on the sand. But our journey wasn’t done, so we turned onto Bluewater Highway for the final 38 (flat) miles.

The weather was beautiful for most of this stretch, which was a welcome reprieve. However, as we arrived into the city, the sea wall greeted us with a downpour. And when we turned toward downtown Galveston, the streets were already flooding. I remember being grateful for the rain as we all stepped off of our bikes, because it didn’t take long for the tears to begin to flow. We’d completed our journey and were able to just let the rain and emotions wash over us. As we all cried and hugged one another, the connection we’d felt the entire journey with the land, history, and one another just resonated. We were here, we were free, and we were together. 

a man in front of a building on the street
Ariel Marlowe

Writer’s Note: At the time of filming, BHBR was a project in Six Square’s incubator program, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that celebrates and preserves the great arts, culture and history of Central East Austin.

As of January 2024, Black History Bike Ride has received its own 501(c)3 nonprofit status, with a goal of empowering more people to share the stories that highlight black history, current events, and futures.

We think this documentary will be a great way to further inspire and educate people, not only in Austin but in Texas and beyond. The full documentary can only currently be seen at the film festivals we’ve been selected for: Bicycle Film Festival (NYC), Denton Black Film Festival (Denton), LA Black Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival (LA), Say it Loud Festival (Baltimore), and Hayti Heritage Film Festival (Durham, NC). If you’d like to help support our mission of riding bikes and sharing Black History, please support us by attending rides and screenings, or by donating here.

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