By Lisa Bourne,
CTS Contributing Editor &
Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift
As a Black cyclist, when I realized that both Legion of LA, the first and only Black owned cycling team, and Ayesha McGowan, our first Black female pro cyclist, were going to be racing in Tulsa on the 100th anniversary of the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre I knew I had to be there – whether I was riding or not. As a non-racer and true roadie I decided to ride the 70-mile Medio Fondo – but more on that later. For me, the weekend was about so much more than cycling and I felt it was important to try and put into words how the experiences of the weekend left an emotional imprint on my soul.
I shamefully admit that like many of us, I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was never taught in schools or anywhere else. Let’s be clear, this was not by chance, as the powers that be in our country have systematically chosen to avoid educating us on atrocities committed in Tulsa and elsewhere by Whites against innocent Black citizens who were trying to live their daily lives like anyone else. Had we been taught about Tulsa, we would all know that during Memorial Day Weekend of 1921, an angry White mob targeted Black residents of the Greenwood District, killing as many as 300 Blacks, injuring more than 800, and leaving more than 10,000 Blacks homeless with property damage amounting to more than $32.7M in 2020 dollars. (Reference: Tulsahistory.org and NY Times)
Imagine, 35 square blocks of the wealthiest Black neighborhood in the country completely wiped out – schools, churches, homes, and businesses – because one group of people hated seeing progress being made by another group of people who simply had a different skin color. For the historians out there, yes, the spark that lit the flame was the fact that a White teenage woman accused a Black teen of assault – despite the official police record stating that the Black teen had grabbed her arm and nothing more. There were even rumors that the two were lovers – a dangerous proposition back then (Reference: OKhistory.org, Race Commission Report of 2001). On top of all of that, as far as I could research, there has never been one single prosecution, arrest, or conviction for any of the White perpetrators.
I’ve never understood racism. We are all human with our flaws and foibles. What I do understand is that today, given the privilege I have as a CTS Contributing Editor and as an Ivy League-educated Black woman, I have a responsibility to honor the Black lives lost in Tulsa and to learn more about my people’s history and educate those readers who will read on.
My Tulsa Tough weekend started with a 4-and-a-half hour drive up from Dallas, Texas that included crossing Indian Nation. I could write an entire story describing the racism endured by the Native American in this country, but I won’t do that here. With 7% of my DNA tied to the Massapequot and Narragansent Native American tribes, I tried hard to not think about the bloodstained lands I was crossing for my bike adventure. For those interested in learning more about some of the struggles of the Oklahoma Native Tribes, I do recommend checking out This Land podcast.
For those not familiar with the Tulsa Tough cycling event, think about it as the mardi gras of bike racing and a three day cycling festival. Coming off of a cancelled year due to COVID, I expected big crowds and amazing energy, and it did not disappoint. The heat was brutal, however, which made any kind of cycling difficult – let alone criterium racing! I had several friends racing in their respective categories and wanted to show my support – despite how crazy and dangerous I think these races are! This was only the third series of crits I’ve watched live as a spectator. What I can say for sure is that there will be speed, there will be crashes, there will even be blood, and even as a spectator the furious energy of the peloton will get your adrenaline flowing!
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Another thing I can say about crit racing is that it was the last event I was able to share with my Mom before she died suddenly in August of 2019. Here’s where the emotional and really incredible part of my story begins. Back in June 2019, without a thought in my mind about the possibility of my Mom’s passing, I decided to surprise her with a weekend visit. Let it be known that I had never-in 44 years of my life-surprised my Mom for a visit. Now I know it was God’s and the Universe’s plan for us. I dragged her, very unwillingly, to watch Legion of LA’s Justin Williams win the 2019 National Criterium Championships in Hagerstown, MD and once the races started she loved every minute! I had explained to her how Justin’s was our only Black professional cyclist and how I had to be there. After his win we walked to the podium ceremony so I could chat briefly with my hero and get a photo. My Mom took our photo, after several failed and embarrassing attempts to help her with my iPhone, and today it’s one of my most cherished memories in life. I know she’s beaming from Heaven when she thinks about how today I now work for and lead Diversity efforts for Zwift, the lead sponsor for Justin’s team. It’s a dream job I know her angel magic helped me attain.
Fast forward almost two years to the day and I decided to make my way to the Legion tent on the first night of Tulsa Tough. I met a young man named Tim and explained to him how I was there for the weekend as a fondo rider but also happened to work for Zwift. I told him my story about my Mom and I meeting Justin back in 2019, and for a moment his face went blank. There was a palpable moment of silence when I realized there had been a woman standing next to me the whole time while I was sharing my story. Tim looked me straight in the eye, gave me his condolences about losing my Mom, and then told me I had been standing next to Justin’s Mom, Des, this whole time. In one beautiful moment she asked me my name, wrapped me in her arms, told me my “mama was here with us” and shared her phone number with me to keep in touch. For those of you who have lost Mothers and/or Mama figures, I’m sure you can understand me when I say I had no hope in that moment to not just burst into tears and soak up the love.
Feeling like an adopted Williams sibling, I headed back to my hotel to prepare for the early departure of my fondo. The next day’s heat was brutal but the knowledge that this was my first 50+ mile organized ride since pre-COVID powered me along. The unfamiliar roads added to the excitement and I felt strong. Nothing was going to keep me from rocking my 17 mph pace goal for the 70-mile event! There’s something about pinning a number to your jersey, in any type of event, that makes me go faster. I felt like I was part of a tribe that had descended on Tulsa to participate in some sort of life affirming ritual.
Part of feeling embraced by a community comes from shared experiences. At most cycling events, the shared experiences that make me feel included revolve around the bike, the training we’ve all done, the lifestyles we lead, and the passion we have for the sport. Tulsa Tough was special because I got to witness L39ion of LA practically sweep the race podiums each day, had the opportunity to meet Mama Williams, Justin, Cory, and the rest of the team; and watched Ayesha McGowan finish top 10. And walking around during the races I had the opportunity to see young boys and girls–particularly brown skinned boys and girls–watch these strong Black cyclists and start to fall in love with the sport that has changed my life. Being there, in that location and so close to both the Tulsa Race Massacre anniversary and Juneteenth, highlighted the value and need for greater representation in sport so that more people of color and other under-represented populations see themselves reflected in the peloton and the community the way I did–and those kids did–during Tulsa Tough.
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