A new bike ride in September will illuminate the Black Iowa history the organizers said many people may not know about — Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad.
“Sometimes the stories we’ve heard growing up in school aren’t the complete picture,” said Dayna Chandler, “shero” of Black Girls Do Bike Iowa Chapter, a ride co-sponsor.
“This type of ride is necessary because our Iowa Black history is a story we need to tell,” said Chandler, who is “big” on finding the untold stories of Black Iowans.
To Chandler, the Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride is “not just a ride.”
Famed conductor Harriet Tubman, activist Frederick Douglass and radical abolitionist John Brown, who visited Tabor and stayed at the Jordan House Museum in West Des Moines in 1859, are some of the well-known names of the Underground Railroad, which began operating in the 1800s until the end of the Civil War in 1865. There were only a few hundred Black people in Iowa at that time, according to state historians.
The Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride Route Map
Not actually a railroad, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists, many of whom had religious affiliations. Enslaved Black people, treated inhumanely and considered as property, used the routes to travel from the South to free states and Canada, where they were no longer subjected to the abject cruelty of American chattel slavery.
Iowa had significant Underground Railroad activity because of its status as a free state and its proximity to Missouri, which allowed Black people to be enslaved, and Illinois, to the east, which did not. Iowa’s route stretched through Tabor, Lewis, Des Moines, Grinnell, Iowa City, West Liberty, Low Moor and Clinton, according to the Iowa State Historical Society of Iowa.
According to Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa and museum curator for the State Historical Museum of Iowa, Iowa had two main routes, the one out of the west from Tabor, an equally active route in the southeast and then less prominent networks from Page County over to Davis County.
The ride will showcase two structures in Tabor and Lewis, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ride, which begins in Tabor and ends in Cold Springs, highlights a 68-mile stretch that includes The Todd House in Tabor and the Hitchcock House in Lewis, the homes of Iowans, the Rev. John and Martha Todd, and the Rev. George B. Hitchcock, who were central to the antislavery activities there. Other structures — not a part of the ride but part of the Underground Railroad in Iowa — include the Jordan House in West Des Moines and the Lewelling House in Salem. The Pearson House in Keosauqua is also thought to be part of the Underground Railroad in Iowa.
Julia Rose, president of the Iowa chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which is a ride sponsor along with Black Girls Do Bike Iowa Chapter and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, teamed up with Chandler a year ago and began to develop the ride.
“It was part of the history that I hadn’t really heard much,” she said. “There was a lot of talk originally about how Iowa was a free state, and so the idea of needing an Underground Railroad through Iowa kind of struck me as interesting.”
Organizers of the Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride want to recognize, acknowledge and honor the Black people who bravely risked their lives seeking freedom and the abolitionists who aided them. They’re hoping 200 riders join them on Sept. 15-17. The ride includes camping and tours of historic areas. Registration is open. The early bird cost is $115, which includes tours and meals. The price increases to $125 in August, and $135 in September. The event features a special cycling jersey, which costs $80 and was designed by Bike Rags in Cedar Rapids.
Chandler said much of Iowa’s Black history has gone untold but would have been encouraging to learn about while growing up in Des Moines. All Iowans can benefit from knowing more about the Underground Railroad and its Iowa connection, Chandler and Rose agreed.
“They were all so courageous in my mind,” Chandler said, of the enslaved. “To walk up to a house . . . They’re fleeing . . . Just on faith and hope because they didn’t know who was on the other side of that door. They didn’t know who would be greeting them and what was waiting for them when they arrived.”
She added: “So when I ride, that’s what I’ll be carrying with me — those thoughts of their courageousness that created a pathway for myself and my children and all the other people who came after.”
Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, said sponsoring the Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride is about honoring the state’s history and fight for freedom and equality.
“We want to keep that spirit alive and spread the word about this important part of our past so we can all learn and grow together,” he said, via email. The coalition also wants to support organizations like Black Girls Do Bike, he said.
The subject matter could be heavy, organizers agreed, but the ride will have celebratory aspects and camaraderie that will be enjoyable to all.
“We want it to be celebratory, but we also want it to be reflective,” said Rose, a native of California who considers herself a casual rider, although she has participated in RAGBRAI. The ride is a way to honor the stories that were passed down verbally about the Underground Railroad and recognize that history is documented by the people in power, she said.
Chandler participated in a bike ride from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, last spring to see how the ride handled the weight of history and said she gained context on how to develop a ride that’s meaningful. She has also organized rides around Buffalo Soldiers, she said.
“So I think we have a good balance,” she said.
The organizers said they plan to carry the spirit of the “faceless” and “nameless” with them as they participate in the ride. Rose said the early Iowans and abolitionists didn’t just “talk about freedom and equality” but put their actions behind it.
“We really want to highlight the towns’ history,” Rose said. “It’s largely forgotten.”
Even if people don’t ride bikes, Chandler and Rose want them to come out and cheer on the riders. Volunteers are also needed.
“Our ride is for folks who are off the bike as well,” Chandler said. “Come out, come learn, come and be a part of it. Volunteer. We welcome families. We want this to be an event for everyone in our state to enjoy, and you can do that on the bike, or off the bike.”
“It’s not just a bike ride; It’s a chance to make meaningful connections, learn and embrace a shared journey toward a more inclusive and empowered future,” he said.
Want to donate to the Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride? Email Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Story updated on 8/1/23.