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Short Story


Hearing the applause, Frank Hart ducked into his tent and picked up a broomstick to which he had fixed an American flag. Then, smiling broadly, he raced on, knowing he had brought the record home.
Frank Hart was among America's first black athletes and that race in 1880 made him a champion and winner of the biggest purse ever won by a black athlete up to that time. Yet, few today have ever heard of him or the sport in which he excelled.
In our health-conscious times, walking is considered good exercise. In the last half of the 19th century, distance-walking or pedestrianism was among America's most popular sports.
It had its greatest vogue in the 1870s before losing popularity to baseball, football and other "new" sports. Unfortunately, because of competition for spectators and money with these other sports, pedestrianism lost luster through "gimmicrky" by its final days.
Still, the true proponents such as Frank Hart were amazing athletes and deserve recognition for their accomplishments.
Participants, both men and women, competed solo or in teams, combining speed and endurance in events that would test the mettle of any of today's athletes.
The sport originated in Great Britain in 1764 when Foster Powell, a 30-year-old lawyer, walked the 50 miles from London to Bath in seven hours. Soon others were betting they could walk farther and faster.
Pedestrianism came to America in February 1861 when Edward Payson Weston walked from Boston to Washington to settle an election bet. Despite extreme cold, deep snow and driving rain, Weston completed the more than 400 mile jaunt in his proposed 10 days and won a bag of peanuts. The feat attracted considerable publicity and he saw opportunity.
Weston proposed other distance walks to break existing British records and found promoters happy to put up prize money. This attracted other athletes to compete against him and one another.
In addition to the distance races which were followed by referees, timekeepers and spectators on horseback and in buggies, competitions were held in arenas and drew large crowds. A popular variation was the "go-as-you-please" race which combined walking and running. Frank Hart was one of those who excelled in this event.
Hart began competing as an amateur while working as a grocer in Boston. No law excluded blacks but it was generally accepted a color line existed and he encountered opposition on entering his first professional event in 1879.
Hart turned to his manager Fred Englehart and asked if he would be allowed to race.
"He answered 'yes' and told those who die not like that to get out," Hart recalled later. "They didn't get out and I won the race."
During the event, a spectator tried to throw pepper in his eyes. Whether it was prejudice or simply an expression of favor for another athlete is uncertain. But, Weston had a similar experience in New York in 1874.
Hart's performance in Boston attracted the attention of Daniel O'Leary, considered the best of the pedestrians, who was looking for a protege.
A native of Ireland who came to the U.S. in 1861, O'Leary rose to champion status when he beat Weston in 1875. Noted for his speed and endurance, he logged 300,000 miles in his lifetime and reportedly could still walk a mile in 9 minutes at the age of 90.
That last may be taken as hyperbole in view of the fact that O'Leary at the age of 40 was winding down his racing career when he sought out Hart and offered to become his manager and trainer.
The 22-year-old Hart was suspicious and countered the offer with conditions of his own. He was aware the sport had an unsavory reputation in some circles. The New York Times had previously editorialized that it was no more than "an opportunity for betting to professional gamblers, who would just as soon have bet on two raindrops running down a pane of glass, or on the length of two straws drawn from a wheat stack, and the gratification of a few curiosity-hunting sight-seers."
Hart knew his ability and he was determined to use it to the utmost advantage. He was not willing to be a pawn for another's profit. "Gentlemen in sporting business sometimes keep their men back to make money and other things, but I don't want that," he told O'Leary. "I must go straight and win or I'll go back to groceries."
The terms were acceptable and the two entered into partnership.
Instead of a gradual introduction, O'Leary entered Hart in the most important event of the year - the Astley Belt championship race in New York City. Weston, seeking a comeback, was among the contenders in this race which was the biggest sporting event of its time. Hart didn't win, but his performance proved a publicity coup.
Detractors called him arrogant but the evidence indicates, coached by O'Leary and certain of his gifts, he knew exactly what he was doing and played to the crowd for all it was worth. The New York Herald sang his praises. "He carried his head high, with a quill toothpick between his lips," a reporter wrote, noting that his speed accelerated as the band broke into his favorite piece, "Baby Mine."
Recognizing Briton Charles Rowell as the favorite, Hart further amused the crowd by spoofing his behavior - walking, sprinting and running in sync with him and aping his style. Rowell won the belt but Hart came in fourth and captured the attention of the public.
Proving that he was a serious contender, "Black Dan," as he was known from then on, won his first professional race, the Rose Belt, soon after, going 540.1 miles in six days.
He was now ready to make history at the O'Leary Belt competition, named for his coach.
"Not in the history of walking matches has such a crowd gathered in the capacious building," the Herald wrote of the more than 4,000 fans who jammed Madison Square Garden for the start of the competition on April 5, 1880.
"I'll break those white fellows hearts, I will - you hear me!" a confident Hart told the press. And, he did.
Inspired by Hart, two other blacks, William Pegram and Edward Williams, entered the race. Pegram would finish second and Williams came in seventh.
Never before had blacks been accorded such a welcome in a sporting event. "They kept up well with the others and demonstrated their constitutional right to walk in public, without regard to any previous condition whatever," according to one press report.
But, it was Hart who clearly thrilled the public. Before the race was half over, his resting tent was piled high with gifts from admirers, male and female, black and white.
Arena competitions were run on an eighth-mile clay track covered with a spongy mix of tanbark and sawdust. A scoreboard at one end posted the number of laps completed by each racer. Between laps, competitors rested on benches or in tents around the perimeter of the track. Since events generally went on for six days, crowds fluctuated and monotony demanded the diversions of betting, drinking, concessions and, occasionally, various entertainments.
The excitement generated by the 1880 O'Leary Belt competition saw crowds actually increase each day and draw numerous celebrities as well as throngs of pickpockets who it may be assumed had some good days.
Hart and John Dobler of Chicago were in close competition by the end of the first day, both vying for the six day record of 553 miles established by an Englishman known as "Blower" Brown.
Hart did not assume a definite lead until the fifth day. Admirers showed their support by showering his tent with bouquets and more gifts.
He knew victory was his when the band broke into his favorite number and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. That was when he stopped at his tent and took up his flag.
At the end of the six days Frank Hart had set a new "go-as-you-please" record of 565 miles and won a purse of $16,784.
Hart continued to win major races until his retirement in the 1890s. Even had he not, he deserves to be remembered as one of America's first black sports champions.
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