Bicycling through history

August 12, 2015

Sarah Braker, communications manager

Hobson City, Alabama, established in 1899, is a small town 65 miles east of Birmingham and 88 miles west of Atlanta, Georgia. It is the oldest black municipality in the state. In 2009, it was named a “Place in Peril,” essentially an endangered place according to the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation. “There was a fear that the city was going to go under,” explains Alberta McCrory, the mayor of Hobson City. Now, just a few days before the town’s annual Founder’s Day celebration, there is rampant optimism and excitement.

This year, for the first time, the event will include a community bike ride, something that Mayor McCrory sees as a sign that the future for her town is bright. “Out of that peril we see a lot of promise,” she says, “We have survived and will continue to.”

The backstory

Rising Star Methodist United Church, one of the oldest churches in Hobson City, Alabama.

The origins of this bike ride began when Mayor McCrory reached out to an architect from San Antonio named Everett Fly and asked him to help research the history of Hobson City. The hope was that he would discover a historical significance that would get the town listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This, Mayor McCrory hoped, would increase tourism. Fly soon discovered that there was a vocational training school in Hobson City in the early 1900s.

In addition to the usual trades taught, such as carpentry and tailoring, the school in Hobson City also offered bicycle mechanics. A man named Christopher Columbus Sykes (who operated a bike shop in a nearby town until his death in 1941) taught the classes. “I started telling the mayor that they should take advantage of this,” Fly explains, “That it would be very a unique and environmentally sustainable way to bring people to the town.”

The big idea

Coach Atiba with BRAG Dream Team members on a 2015 ride in Florida.

Fly envisioned an annual bike ride, coinciding with Founder’s Day, to celebrate Hobson City’s unique history, but he didn’t know much about organizing one. Looking for help, he contacted the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club and eventually heard back from Atiba Mbiwan. Coach Atiba, as everyone calls him, is an avid cyclist who is also involved with the BRAG Dream Team, a program that works to involve youth in the Bike Ride Across Georgia.

Despite the heat and humidity of August in Alabama, Coach Atiba was interested in helping them organize the ride. He also had bigger ideas. “I told them that I’d be interested in helping them start a youth cycling program similar to the BRAG Dream Team,” he explains. Just like that, bike riding was back in Hobson City.

In mid-August when the town celebrates Founder’s Day, Coach Atiba will be there to lead two group rides around town. “As they ride they’re going to stop at key spots and show the riders historic sites in Hobson City,” Fly explains. “Where the first mayor lived, where the first school was built, the town cemetery, and where the founders are buried.”

Additionally, Coach Atiba and a few other BRAG Dream Team members will lead basic bicycle mechanics and safety classes for Hobson City youth. They’ll also provide a seed grant of ten bicycles and helmets so these young people can continue to make bicycling a part of their lives. “I’m excited about some of the things we can do with youth and bikes,” says Mayor McCrory, “it’s what we want to expose our kids to.”

Good ideas tend to spread quickly, and it didn’t take long for Mayor McCrory to send word of this new partnership to the mayors of other small southern towns rich with African American history. In addition to Hobson City, six other historically black towns, from North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida will be sending young people to Hobson City’s Founder’s Day event. They’ll also get bikes and helmets as well as an introduction to bike riding and maintenance.

The future

The town cemetary in Hobson City will be one stop on this year’s bike ride.

Coach Atiba would like to see the bike ride grow over the years and perhaps even include cyclocross racing at nearby Coldwater Mountain Park, a premier mountain bike park near Hobson City. “My hope is that this event will get them to think about the opportunities that ecotourism provides when you include a cycling component,” he explains.

Fly couldn’t agree more. “There’s an authentic bicycling and recreation legacy right there in Hobson City,” he explains, “and now we’re watching it turn into education, youth empowerment and historic preservation.” Though they are still working toward their initial goal of getting Hobson City designated as an official historic site, everyone involved is thrilled about the way this project has evolved.

“We as a city want to provide a safe place for people to ride,” Mayor McCrory explains, “and encourage our community to respect people on bikes so everybody can be safe.” She acknowledges that the bike ride is a simple step, but one that she hopes can have a profound effect on Hobson City. What started as a simple investigation into the history of one small town has evolved into an investment in that town’s future.

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