To Junius Wilson, bikes meant freedom

By Katherine Ott
Yellow bike with front and back baskets leans against a worn white wall, in the grass.

Junius Wilson's history has been told in newspapers, books, and even in this museum's exhibitions. It is the history of a man who had more injustice pound down on him than most people ever hear about, let alone experience.

Man in pajamas wearing Santa hat, inside a house with blinds closed

Wilson, born in 1908, was apparently wrongfully accused of a criminal act as a teenager, found insane by a jury, and sentenced to a psychiatric hospital in his home state of North Carolina, where he spent the rest of his life. Wilson was a young, deaf, and African American man from a struggling rural town. For many decades, no one learned to communicate with him in his language, including during court proceedings. After the 1928 Supreme Court decision legalizing sterilization of people in institutions, he was castrated. His family traveled to the hospital after World War II to seek his release but were turned away. Despite being deemed sane, he remained institutionalized.

When Wilson was in his 80s, at the instigation of a social worker and lawyers who looked at his file and understood the outrageous miscarriage of justice, Wilson was released from the locked wards and given a settlement from the state. He lived the last few years of his life in a cottage on the hospital grounds. He died in 2001. (Check out the book Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson to learn more about his life.)

Wilson's story is one of the troubling chapters of American ableism (the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to the able-bodied) and racism, to be sure. His is also a deeply moving demonstration of the role of objects—in particular, bicycles—in creating dignity, purpose, and a larger identity. Over the years, Wilson owned bicycles that he purchased with money he saved from digging and selling fishing worms. This museum has had the good fortune to collect his last bike—a yellow Schwinn—that his biographer, Susan Burch, located in a shed on the hospital grounds after he passed away. The bicycle story of Junius Wilson deserves closer, if inferential, attention.

Yellow bike on blue cart being wheeled in to a hallway with yellow walls.  A woman pushes from one side, stabilizing the bike with her hand. A man pulls form the other side. The bike has baskets in front and back.

When safety bikes first hit the commercial market in the 1880s, the world got a little bigger and more interesting. People formed bicycling clubs and associations. They purchased maps or drew their own, marking land formations, treacherous terrain, and good spots to picnic or view the countryside. With a bike, women, youths, and people who were restricted from public conveyances because of race or poverty had the possibility of going further or doing something different, as long as they had a certain amount of physical mobility.

Yellow bike with front and back baskets leans against a worn white wall, in the grass.

Wilson must have felt this, too. He owned three bikes in his life while imprisoned in the psychiatric hospital. Perhaps the freedom to ride around the grounds and into town on a special occasion relieved the monotony as well as announced his ownership of something. The objects that we use make public statements about us—about our competency, identity, domain. Wilson's yellow Schwinn with two wire baskets said a lot about him. His bikes were not given to him. He wanted one and went after it. He was a man with aspiration, even if only to get out and ride across the grounds. His bike gave him alone time with a machine that he owned and controlled, even if sporadic and restricted by imposing institutional boundaries. The injustices done to Mr. Wilson no doubt preyed on him throughout his life. Yet he not only managed to get one bike, he got another and another. His keeping on with bikes, his companionship with self-propelled freedom, and his mastery of balance and steady pedaling over the uneven grounds give us a glimpse of his internal life, even though he left no papers and most of the people around him never learned to communicate with him.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990-2015 artifact wall, showing large graphics of the signing of the law by Pres. Bush, a yellow bike, and other artifacts behind glass on display in a shallow, tall case

Katherine Ott is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.