CINCINNATI — Shortly after sunrise Saturday, Peter Titlebaum will mount his bicycle to start a more than 600-mile ride from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Ride 4 Freedom Legacy Tour is a chance for Titlebaum to spread a message of equality and raise money for the two museums and for a scholarship fund at the University of Dayton where he’s a professor of sport management.
“Legacy is powerful, and it’s overwhelming,” Titlebaum said. “I’m not sure that the people that were doing the Freedom Rides or the Underground Railroad thought they were changing the world.”
He got an unexpected chance to find out what at least one activist was thinking thanks to a recent WCPO story on the experiences of David Fankhauser, who took part in a 1961 Freedom Ride when he was just 19 years old.
After the story published on WCPO.com and aired on 9 On Your Side, a friend of Titlebaum’s asked if WCPO could help connect the two men. Fankhauser, a retired University of Cincinnati Clermont College professor, invited Titlebaum to his Clermont County home. WCPO was invited, too, and had a camera rolling as the two men discussed Fankhauser’s historic Freedom Ride and Titlebaum’s plans.
“I’m excited at the potential for consciousness raising,” Fankhauser said after hearing more about Titlebaum’s plan. “I do think that the first step is positive social change is consciousness raising.”
‘Try to create bridges’
Titlebaum is one of three men who will make the more than 600-mile ride to Alabama.
Moshe Bar-gil and Daniel Iroh will bike with him on what Titlebaum describes as a goodwill fundraising tour in honor of black history and the fight for civil rights.
Titlebaum explained to Fankhauser that he grew up in a family that valued civil rights.
“My mom had met Martin Luther King, Jr., when she was at Boston University and had coffee with him,” he said. “It was important in our family that we treated everybody as equals.”
That’s why Titlebaum was intrigued, he said, by the fact that Fankhauser made the decision to become a Freedom Rider.
“What made you say, ‘I’m in’ at 19?” Titlebaum asked him.
“Part of the answer is I was 19,” Fankhauser said with a smile. “I mean I was very idealistic.”
Titlebaum is Jewish, and he said that has made him acutely aware of how minority groups are treated. At the end of each day of his ride to Montgomery, he and his fellow cyclists will stop and talk with Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other community groups about the importance of giving back and making a difference.
Fankhauser said he’s confident Titlebaum and his friends will be met with less hostility than the Freedom Riders were.
“But he will find people that are worried about their economic status and the future of this nation,” he said.
He advised that listening to those concerns and being empathetic will be key.
“Try to create bridges,” Fankhauser said. “Not erect walls.”
Titlebaum said he is looking for this trip to be part of his legacy.
“I have a week to create something life-changing for myself,” he said. “I care about civil rights. I care about the Underground Railroad, and I care about legacy. My goal is to raise funds so I can support all these.”
‘We all have to leave a legacy’
His two traveling partners are both younger men and serious bikers. Bar-gil is 44 and originally from Israel. Iroh is 24 and from Nigeria.
Titlebaum is 59 and said he has biked 2,800 miles in preparation for the trip.
He has two people who will drive a van alongside the cyclists, and one of them will post updates to a Ride 4 Freedom Legacy Tour Facebook page.
“The biking is the vehicle,” he said. “It’s having the conversation. It’s telling people you can create good news. Our world needs that right now. These things are important.”
Titlebaum said he’s hoping that the story captures people’s imaginations enough that it goes viral.
That would help him reach his goal of raising $100,000 for the Freedom Center, the Freedom Rides Museum and to help create a scholarship at the University of Dayton’s Institute of Applied Creativity and Transformation. He wants the scholarship to go to a rising senior who creates a “community-building project designed to have a long-term legacy on its recipients.”
“We all have to leave a legacy whether we like it or not,” Titlebaum said. “The question is whether it’s going to be positive.”
Looking back at his Freedom Ride and how that plays into his own legacy, Fankhauser said he never considered that he was being a leader back in 1961.
He looked down at one of the quotes that Titlebaum plans to share during his talks: Lead by example, and create a better tomorrow.
“I agree with creating a better tomorrow, and that’s what we were trying to do,” he said. “I didn’t consider what I was leading. I was following my heart.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.