Black and brown runners posing outside the Art Institute in downtown Chicago
7 on Sundays running club (Photo courtesy of Aaron Ingram)

Running for the South Side

South of Roosevelt, running groups aim to make Black and brown runners visible and safe

Almost every Saturday morning, Courtney Phillips heads to 51st and Calumet to lead a group run. Despite the threat of rain on April 10, sixteen people—mostly Black and brown—gathered on the large patch of wood chips at 8am outside of Last Lap Cornerstore, one of the very few running-specific stores south of Roosevelt.

Phillips adjusted her mask and raised her voice to call out the names of pre-run stretches as the Green Line trains rushed past: scoops, lateral lunges, hip openers. When she was satisfied with the warmup, she welcomed the runners, both the regulars and the newcomers, to GumboFit.

She founded GumboFit in 2019 as a safe space for Black and brown people, particularly from South and West side communities, to explore different activities like archery, rock climbing, and yes—running. “We do more than just basketball,” she said. “We can run, and we can go sailing, and we can be out here taking up space, just like anybody else.”

Phillips started GumboFit after she noticed most of the existing run clubs were on the North Side and were primarily white. Black runners, she said, didn’t always feel like they could be comfortable being themselves, like they felt cared for as Black people. “If the vibes don’t align with the consideration of Black lives, then why would I show up and get there early in the morning with people that don’t care about me, you know?”

Ever since Ahmaud Arbery was chased and killed by three white men in a pickup truck in Glynn County, Georgia, while he was out for a run in February 2020, Black runners across the country have shared their experiences of #RunningWhileBlack and why running, especially in non-Black neighborhoods, made them feel unsafe. For Phillips, in the wake of Arbery’s murder, building a running community where Black people could be themselves and feel cared for was more critical than ever.

“Black people deserve to be outside,” she said. “They deserve sunshine and fresh air without being worried about what might happen to them.”

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If you look at a map of Chicago running patterns on Strava, a popular exercise app, the North Side is streaked with routes. But west of the Lakefront Trail, as Phillips observed, the South Side is mostly bare.

Aaron Ingram, Craig Taylor, and Ian Gonzalez co-founded the running group 7 on Sundays in the fall of 2018 for Black and brown runners on the South Side. They met as coworkers at the now-closed Nike store in Bucktown. The three had occasionally run with Nike Run Club, but participants were primarily white and the events almost always on the North Side. “Being Black and Hispanic, being a South Sider,” Gonzalez said, “I was always kind of like, looking in from the outside.”

The group started as a conversation in their store break room: What if races and events and running meetups were hosted on the South Side? “How cool would it be if we were running in our communities, in our neighborhoods?”

While the Lakefront Trail might have been an obvious choice, 7 on Sundays’ co-founders were more interested in undoing the stigma of South Side neighborhoods. “We want people in those neighborhoods to see Black and brown faces running down the street,” Gonzalez explained. “We want people to know that it is a safe place to run. You can run up King Drive. You can run up Stony Island. You can run up 71st, you can run down 57th. Like, this is all accessible to us.”

Ingram agreed. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I run too and I’m not going to go all the way to the lakefront. I live right here.’”

And right here, for Ingram, is Bronzeville, where he grew up. The tennis courts on 37th and Prairie are where his childhood apartment used to be. He started high school at Mount Carmel, a private all-boys Catholic institution in Woodlawn well known for its athletics programs. Ingram wasn’t on the track or cross-country teams, but was nevertheless influenced by the school’s commitment to athleticism. “It was just contagious.”

So when he moved to Harlan, a public school on 97th and Michigan, he sailed through the PE class requirement to run a mile under a set time limit. “I forget what the time was, but it was just like laughable to me,” Ingram said. “I was like, ‘What? Of course I can do this.’” Not long after, a gym teacher encouraged him to join the track team. Ingram ran the 800m and the mile, but when he looked around during meets, he didn’t see other Black runners.

Although Taylor wasn’t on his school team, he had a similar experience when he got his start in running. Now fifty-six, Taylor grew up on 82nd and Blackstone and, as a teenager, he often accompanied an older uncle on runs. “At that point, we called it jogging,” he clarified.

Taylor seldom saw other runners in the neighborhood. “We would run all the way from 82nd Street at one point to the lakefront where then we would see other runners,” he recalled. “But we definitely didn’t see any runners that looked like us.”

Even now, Gonzalez has trouble convincing his non-running friends that recreational running is for Black people, too. “They would make those jokes like, ‘You’re doing white people stuff! You running marathons…’ like, that’s what we’ve come to understand,” he laughed. “[That] running is what white people do. They’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to just have this idle time where they could just go and jog to nowhere with no destination.”

The history of recreational running is rooted in a white, largely middle-class, privilege. In 1966, alarmed at the increasingly sedentary white American lifestyle in the years following World War II, a track and field coach from Oregon named William Bowerman (who would later found Nike) co-wrote a book called, yes, Jogging, that highlighted the benefits of the title practice. The book was wildly successful, selling a million copies and catalyzing a national obsession with the activity.

NPR reporter Gene Demby pointed out in a 2020 Code Switch episode that Bowerman’s home state, Oregon—which was also the only state admitted to the Union with a charter that “explicitly barred Black people from living there”—soon became “the epicenter of America’s new jogging craze.”

In an interview with Demby, historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela said that by the 1970s and 80s, jogging had become more and more associated with white yuppies. “This is the kind of upwardly-mobile professional who cares about their health, who has enough money to buy nice things, who has leisure time that they’re spending doing laudable activities like working on their health,” she said. These white middle-class professionals didn’t just jog, she explained. They identified as athletes.

They were runners.

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Concerns about runners’ safety have been around as long as “jogging” has—clad in little but shorts and shoes, and often alone and far from home, runners can be uniquely vulnerable. In that same interview with Code Switch, Petrzela explained that in the broader running culture of running, “the quintessentially vulnerable runner is always pretty much cast as a white woman.”

The two murders of white women runners in August 2016 further entrenched this idea. In fact, Petrzela emphasized, the runner safety conversation often positions people of color as the threat to white people running. The 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five New York City Black boys were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the rape and assault of a white woman runner after police extracted false confessions from them, reinforced this white supremacist stereotype.

As a Black man, Taylor is no stranger to the feeling of being perceived as a potential threat in an unfamiliar neighborhood. He described a recent experience of going on a longer run and getting lost, ending up in a predominantly white neighboring suburb. “I did definitely feel a little uncomfortable,” he said. “I was telling myself in my head, ‘if anybody questions what I’m doing [here], hopefully they can tell by what I’m wearing that I’m just here running.’”

When news of Arbery’s murder reached Chicago last year, run clubs on the North Side contacted Phillips and invited her to host a GumboFit run in Lakeview, which is more than seventy-five percent white. She was all for running through neighborhoods, but this felt off to her. “I like running through Hyde Park because I live in Hyde Park,” Phillips said firmly. “Like, this is my area, but I wouldn’t—I don’t feel comfortable running in another neighborhood that I’m not familiar with.”

Phillips said that in the wake of Arbery’s death, a lot of runners from other parts of the city also came down South to run with GumboFit. “Of course you can join us,” she said, “but it’s also just like maybe figure out why you want to join us first, and why you feel some type of way and why you decided to show up today.”

She doesn’t actively think of GumboFit as a running club for Black people though. She likened it to a white recreational runner starting a running group on the North side for fun and having their friends join in. “But the issue is, like, what is the statistic? Over seventy percent of white people have no Black friends, so obviously their white friends are gonna come out and run with them.”

GumboFit attracts and prioritizes Black people, she explained, because she’s Black. “That’s my community. It’s naturally going to center Black people because how could I do anything other than that?”

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On Sunday, April 11, just after 7am, eleven people gathered on 35th and King Drive across the street from Victory Monument, built to honor the Black Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard that served in France during World War I. It was time for Sunday service: seven miles, all paces welcome.

For newer runners, seven miles might sound intimidating, but Taylor assured me that no one gets left behind. “If you show up, we’re going to run with you,” he said. “We’re not going to strand you.”

This morning’s seven-mile route would run north on King, then west on Cermak before heading north again on Indiana and Michigan to the half-way point, the Art Institute of Chicago. We would then loop around to Columbus and head all the way south on Michigan. It took us through the Motor Row District and the Near South Side before bringing us back to Bronzeville.

Ingram likes the fact that seven miles starting in Bronzeville can take them through so many neighborhoods, including Woodlawn, Hyde Park, Chatham, Bronzeville, South Shore, Grand Crossing, Bridgeport, and Chinatown.

7 on Sundays running club (Photo courtesy of Aaron Ingram)

The runs through Chinatown this past year were especially meaningful to Rosalie Shyu, a 7 on Sundays regular. “In the height of all the anti-Asian hate crimes—and no one even brought this up, but like, for me, it meant a lot that like this mostly-Black running group was willing to go to other neighborhoods, specifically another ethnic-specific neighborhood.”

Shyu emphasized how important it was for her, as an East Asian woman and relatively new Kenwood resident, to learn about Black history in her neighborhood. When she runs along King Drive, for example, she often pauses to look at the Bronzeville Walk of Fame plaques. “There’s a ton of Black artists, poets, athletes,” she said.

And she regularly shares what she learns on social media. On February 27, 2021, Shyu posted photos of monuments she stopped by on her run that day to her Instagram account: the Eugene Williams memorial marker near 31st Street Beach, where the Black youth was killed on a hot summer day for crossing the lake’s aqueous color line in 1919. The Jesse Owens plaque in the park on 88th. The DuSable Museum in Washington Park. The homes of Ida B. Wells and Mamie and Emmet Till.

That the run begins and ends in Bronzeville, a neighborhood rich in Black history, is no coincidence. By design, 7 on Sundays is also, as Gonzalez put it, unapologetically Black. “We don’t muffle our culture and the norms that we have grown up to make it a palatable place for white people to come. We are who we are.”

Ingram agreed. “It’s kind of like the barbershop of running.”

The group pushed off together before settling into groups of twos and threes, the faster runners in the front breezing along the bike lane. We ran past Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest Black Baptist church in Chicago, on 31st and King. The church was established in 1850, thirteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the 1940s, was known as the largest Protestant church in the world. In a 2020 interview with WGTV, Pastor John L. Smith described how Olivet, in the early twentieth century, became a first stop for many Black Southerners during the Great Migration. “Olivet had a nursery, daycare, employment center, medical facilities… everything that you can imagine that somebody might need.”

Both Ingram and Taylor compared 7 on Sundays to the experience of fellowship at a Black church. “If you grew up Black in Chicago,” Taylor explained, “the Black church has always been an important part of the community.” It was a welcoming place, he continued, regardless of whether you came every Sunday or only showed up on Easter.

He acknowledged that even though he believes that consistency is the backbone of their running group, some people might stick it out and some people might drop off to come back, or not. To him, it doesn’t make a difference. “Any time you show up at church, you’re welcome. Any time you show up to 7 on Sundays, you’re welcome.”

Ingram is glad to have all kinds of people join 7 on Sundays, but if they’re not from the area, he wants them to respect the neighborhoods and their histories. “I don’t own this neighborhood,” he said. “But I’m very proud of it. I want to preserve its history. I want to respect its history. And I want people that embark on the journey with us to do it as well.”

We passed by a large bronze figure holding a battered suitcase and waving north—the Monument to the Great Migration—on our left.

“We all kind of have…” Ingram paused. “We have a duty to people of color. To represent a health and wellness community for the South Side. To be like that representative. That’s why we run the streets.”

GumboFit currently starts its weekly Saturday runs (three miles and six miles) at Last Lap Cornerstore on 51st and Calumet at 8am. Starting May 1, GumboFit will move its starting point to Promontory Point on 55th St. 7 on Sundays will continue to meet at 7am on 35th and King Dr. at 7am for three- and seven-mile runs.

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Charmaine Runes is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Computational Analysis and Public Policy program. She last wrote about lagging vaccine rates among ZIP codes with higher shares of essential workers eligible during Phase 1b.

 

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