In the 1800s, an estimated 100,000 people learned the meaning of freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. This summer, 10 high school students from Chapel Hill and their four chaperones will follow that same path to learn their own meaning of freedom, but they'll do so from the seat of a bike.
The students make up Spoke 'n Revolutions, a youth cycling program founded in 2010 by Suepinda Keith and her husband, Kevin Hicks. Beginning June 13, the group will bike 1,800 miles along the Underground Railroad from Mobile, Ala., to Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 32 days, stopping at historical sites to learn about the route and the challenges faced by those seeking freedom.
Hicks says after the group completed the CycleNC Edenton Spring Ride in 2010, the students were hooked. They chose the Underground Railroad for their next tour because of its difficulty and the places they could visit along the route. The Underground Railroad also seemed appropriate to commemorate the the Civil War sesquicentennial, Hicks says. Once the students chose the route, it was decided that the theme of the tour would be "freedom."
The Underground Railroad, so named because of the railroad terminology, was a network of people that helped guide escaped slaves to Canada. It was made up of "conductors" who acted as guides and "stationmasters" who owned homes and businesses where escaped slaves could rest and eat. A number of routes were used, and few people knew the full extent of the operation. Escaped slaves had to travel 10 to 20 miles a night to reach the next safe house and faced the constant threat of being captured.
To complete the Underground Railroad tour in a little more than a month, the cyclists will have to bike an average of 50 to 60 miles each day. But few of the students seem concerned about the long distances.
"The very first time I went with the team we only went eight miles and I was like, 'This is the hardest thing I've ever done,' and now we're doing about 50 miles and it's not that hard," says Jeimy Salazar, a sophomore at East Chapel Hill High School.
The students are confident because they have been preparing for the tour every weekend for more than a year.
"Our first training we did 10 to 15 miles at first to get used to it, and we just gradually built up until we got to where we are now, which is like 45 to 55 miles a day," says Mahlique Keith, a junior. "Our recovery time has built up so much that now it's not that bad."
Rather than worry about the physical challenge ahead of them, the students share a sense of adventure and look forward to the opportunity to see a new part of the country and meet new people.
"I don't travel that much. I've pretty much been in North Carolina my entire life," says junior Houston Lewis. "So getting out and exploring new places will be an interesting experience for me."
Keith founded the organization when she noticed that so few young people used cycling as a form of exercise or transportation. She wanted to promote health and sustainability by introducing high school students to cycling. Although the program does teach the students to live a more active lifestyle, the physical aspect of cycling is only a small part of what the students learn.
"We don't tell them that we're teaching," says Hicks. "We sort of let them figure out the lessons for themselves." For example, he says the students take turns as ride leaders, which teaches them responsibility, leadership and teamwork. "They have to be aware of traffic and the safety of the group ... and they're responsible for setting the pace."
The students have also gained confidence and public-speaking skills through the many presentations they've given about the program to the National Park Service and other groups.
The group will have a teacher to help give historical context to the places they visit. Bob Brogden, a U.S. history teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, has completed several long-distance bicycle tours on his own and will cycle with the students to the the Birmingham Civil Rights institute, The Alex Haley Home Site in Savannah, Tenn., and The Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Just as the Underground Railroad depended on a network of people to guide slaves to freedom, Spoke 'n Revolutions has been working with a network of community organizations and friends to raise funds and plan the trip. The group will be staying at various churches, Quaker meeting houses and YMCAs, Hicks says. The ReCYCLEry NC has worked closely with the group to provide bikes for the students, and thanks to a number of local organizations and private donations, the group has reached its goal of raising $15,000. Any money left over after the tour will go toward scholarships for seniors in the group, Hicks says.
They will end their journey with more than just sore legs and wind-blown faces. They'll gain a new appreciation of history and a new understanding of themselves.
Rebecca Collins is an intern at the Independent Weekly. She attends UNC-Chapel Hill.