Ed Gardner Somewhere in Oklahoma in the Bunion Derby, 1928
Image Courtesy of Charles Kastner
Championship cross country runner Edward Gardner was born in Birmingham, Alabama in December 1898. Shortly after his birth, his family moved west and eventually settled in Seattle. Gardner returned to Alabama in 1914, to attend Tuskegee Institute, where he learned a trade as a steam engineer and became a star on the school’s track team.
By 1921, Gardner was living in Seattle and began competing in the annual Ten Mile Washington State Championship, sponsored by the Seattle Post Intelligencer
. Gardner won the race three times from 1921-1927, setting course records as he went and beating the best amateur and military runners in the Pacific Northwest. As he trained, he adopted his trademark outfit, a white towel tied around his head, a white sleeveless shirt and white trunks. His Seattle fans would call out “oh you Sheik.” The name stuck and Eddie Gardner became known as the “the Sheik” of Seattle.
In 1928, Gardner entered the first footrace across America, nicknamed the “bunion derby” (Los Angeles to New York City in 84 days). He was one of five African Americans in a field of 199 “bunioneers.” The men averaged forty miles a day and faced brutally tough conditions, including crossing the Mojave Desert and the high country of Arizona and New Mexico on a then mostly unpaved Route 66. In Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, Gardner endured a hail of racial slurs and death threats from irate southern whites enraged by sight of a black man beating white competitors in the Jim Crow South. In one case, a white farmer trained a rifle on his back, and followed him on horseback for an entire day, daring him to pass another white man. Eddie endured this assault with Zen-like calm. His heroic run was a symbol of hope and pride to thousands of black Americans who saw him race. Gardner finished eighth out of fifty-five finishers and first among the three black finishers, earning a thousand dollars for his efforts.
In the 1930s the Sheik competed in the annual 52-mile walking race around Lake Washington, known as “the Lake Hike.” In 1938, he set the course record, beating the Northwest’s best distance walkers.
Shortly after his death in August 1966, the legendary Seattle PI
sports writer, Royal Brougham, wrote “Eddie Sheik Gardner went to his last long rest this week, but not until the popular negro globe trotter had racked up more running mileage than any Northwest athlete in history during his 35 years as a competitor.” For thousands of black children who saw him on his epic 3,400 mile run to New York, he was a star of hope and pride in a time of despair. He was Eddie Gardner, the Sheik of Seattle, an iron man and “bunioneer.”
Charles B. Kastner, Bunion Derby: The First Footrace Across America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007).