Another year, another Boston Marathon. I first published this last year as part of my goal to fight Cheeto flea by getting more involved in racial justice. My progress has been slower than I would prefer, but like the marathoners, I try to stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I am reading a book called “Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era.” The author, Ashley Farmer, is a professor at my alma mater, Boston University, and I learned about her and her book from an email from the school — sometimes those annoying emails are actually useful! It is a bit more academic than I’m used to, but that’s OK. She talks about how Black women were working right alongside Black men to gain racial equality, reframing it and adding a female perspective. And she talks about women activists who make the case that it’s not just the big names like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth that we need to think about, but also all of the mothers and grandmothers who held the family together, often by cleaning white women’s houses, and who “found ways to financially and emotionally support [their] family in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and discrimination.”
So in addition to remembering Marilyn Bevans, the first Black woman to run in the Boston Marathon, I am also remembering her mother and grandmother and all the women standing behind her as she crossed that finish line.
As a side note, I decided to Google “first Black women to run the Boston Marathon” this year again to see if we had made any progress on the topic in the past year. Guess what came up first? This blog post, followed by the same references from last year. If that doesn’t show that we all have something to contribute, I don’t know what does. Step by step, people. Step by step.
Today is Patriot’s Day in Boston, aka Boston Marathon Day. There will be an estimated 30,000 runners who have either a qualifying time, are part of a team running for charity, or are simply a handful of rogue folks who find registering and qualifying a bother, and good for them.
At 122 years, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, and is 26 miles and 385 yards, which reminds me of the Mass Ave Bridge’s measurement in Smoots — 364.4 and one ear to be exact. For some reason we Bostonians like our precision, even if it means adding yards or an ear. Oliver Smoot, by the way, was a 1962 graduate of MIT who stood 5 feet, 7 inches. You can well imagine how he was used as a measuring stick and that there was most likely alcohol involved. Perhaps the 385 additional yards in the marathon came about in a similar way. We can only hope.
Last year they retired the number of the first woman to officially register and run, Kathrine Switzer. In 1967 she registered with only her initials — there was this pesky thing where women weren’t officially allowed to run until 1972, so they gave her a number assuming she was a man. I guess that’s some progress. Mary Ann Evans had to take an entire man’s name of George Eliot to get published. Kathrine was inspired by the 1966 rogue run of Roberta Gibbs, who apparently jumped out of the bushes near the start and ran and finished the race. Wanting to run 26 miles is crazy and hard enough, without having to concoct a surprise way of joining in. A year later, Kathrine may have made more than 26,000 steps for herself, but also she made a giant leap for women athletes everywhere — at least the white ones. Marathon official Jack Sempe tried to take her bib, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers.” Her boyfriend, who was running with her, body checked Jack out of the way, but not before the whole thing was photographed and went the 1967 version of viral. There’s a well-done piece about the story in the Boston Herald.
Cool story, right? It made me wonder about other firsts, like the first African-American man and woman to run the Boston race. And that’s where that little ole thing called racism creeps in. Granted, Kathrine’s story was splashed all over the news because of the retired number thing. And there was that 1967 viral photo by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, no less.
However, it should not have taken as many Google searches as it did for me to get to those other firsts. I mean isn’t that what Black History Month is all about? Digging up historical stuff that we’ve been covering up/not caring about for, like, ever?
I found two sources, and the second one, the National Black Marathoners Association history project gets credit for actually including a — 1 — woman. Both sources say Aaron Morris was the first Black male runner in the Boston Marathon in 1919, 47 years before a white woman. The first and only reference I can find of the first Black woman to run in Boston is Marilyn Bevans in 1977; and she placed 2nd. That’s pretty amazing right? Where are the stories about her? Granted once I knew her name, more came up in the search, including that she is considered the first lady of marathon running. But doesn’t that warrant her coming up in the more general searches of first women/first Black woman to run the Boston Marathon?
Maybe in running circles this is common knowledge, but let’s face it, most of us think marathon running is crazy, unless it’s a big event in your city and you get the day off. Or you do it to celebrate a milestone birthday. I personally try not to be friends with people like that, but one tries to be open and flexible to others’ obvious lack of judgment.
So today, I salute you, Marilyn Bevans and Aaron Morris. I like you, too, Kathrine and Roberta, but you’ve been saluted enough. You all remind me that marathons take time, effort, and preparation. That sometimes people don’t want me to accomplish a goal, so I have to jump out of the bushes or avoid getting my bib grabbed. That sometimes remarkable accomplishments go unnoticed because of skin color or gender or both. That many times I need to remember that and be curious beyond the story of a white woman’s amazing accomplishment.