On Aug. 29, 1896, a day before his 15th birthday, Leo E. Welker surprised the crowd at a Colfax 14-mile bicycle race by overcoming a five-minute handicap to win easily. The African American youth and his mother, Alice Battles, had recently moved from the North Dakota frontier boomtown of Devils Lake to Colfax in the same year that 100 Black coal miners arrived there from Oskaloosa.
The first report of a Black bike racer in Iowa had appeared two years earlier in the Sept. 14, 1894, issue of the Iowa Bystander, the state’s African American newspaper: “Fred Wright of Marshalltown has gone to Eldora to enter bicycle races this week.” In the next couple of years bike prices had dropped to the point that working-class people like Welker could afford one.
Welker followed up on his first victory by enrolling at Colfax High School, where he played football and raced his bicycle for the school track team (yes, that was a part of track meets back then). In the fall of 1897, Welker started at Grinnell Academy, a college prep school, working to pay tuition and board. At Iowa (Grinnell) College’s 1898 field day the reported “freshman” won both the half-mile and two-mile contests.
Welker’s Des Moines debut came at the 1899 Independence Day Races, where he won three medals, and prizes reportedly worth $75, which was a hefty sum at the turn of those centuries.
But the big event of the year was at the state meet held at Ottumwa’s new 10-laps-to-the-mile cycledrome, replete with a 14-foot-wide wooden track, banked turns, electric lighting and bleachers for 3,500 spectators. Adding to the excitement for Welker was the appearance there of world-famous Major Taylor, the Black barefoot rider and American champion who rode in the professional races on the very day Welker entered the amateur contests.
USA TODAY: 28 Black sports stories in 28 days
That September saw Welker in a race at the Newton fairgrounds that pitted 10 bike riders (including Fred Duesenberg, later of motor car fame) against a pony in a 10-mile race. The pony came in second behind a Prairie City rider. Welker finished third and (as others would later claim) won $10.
A seemingly unrelated yet pivotal event occurred at the 1899 state meet. Track sensation Homer Holland helped Drake to a 48-point score and the apparent win. Grinnell successfully protested that Holland was a professional athlete and took home the trophy. The incident created bad blood with Drake, which then canceled the schools’ 1900 football match.
At the 1901 state field day Welker’s two wins helped to give Grinnell the victory. With the previous injustice in mind, a Drake rider complained that Welker was ineligible, having remembered him riding in the 1899 Ottumwa professional events. Other schools supported Drake and filed affidavits that included the Newton pony race. At this point the Drake student must have realized he had confused Welker with Major Taylor and asked to rescind his complaint, but the damage had been done. Drake was awarded the prize but nobly refused to accept it.
Welker was also stripped of his wins in Chicago the following summer. Soon after, the League of American Wheelman, the national ruling body of bicycling that did not accept Black membership, declared that anyone who entered a race that included Welker would lose amateur status. Even Major Taylor ran afoul of the League’s racist stance, finally leaving America for France.
In 1902 and 1903 Welker entered unsanctioned races just for fun, but by then he was looking far beyond cycling. He graduated with honors in chemistry and biology from Grinnell and worked his way through Harvard Medical School. After graduation, he taught at the renowned Fisk University, married, and started a medical practice and a family.
When the First World War engulfed America, Welker returned to Iowa to enter Black Officer Training School at Fort Des Moines and served in the medical corps in France. The family eventually settled in Detroit, where he died in 1937 at the age of 57.
Like Eddie Rickenbacker of later aviation fame, there were other notable Iowa bike racers worthy of remembrance, but no one more honorable, self-reliant and successful in life as Leo Edward Welker, the Black bicycle whirlwind who blew into our state from the wilds of North Dakota.
John Zeller lives in Des Moines.