Interview: The MetroWest Daily News

A Framingham resident’s vision for modern abolition – with bikes

 

FRAMINGHAM – The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society met on the banks of Framingham’s Farm Pond, in what was then known as Harmony Grove, every Fourth of July between 1846 and 1865.

In 1854, as Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau stood in front of him, and a bottom-up American flag hung behind him, William Lloyd Garrison lit a match and burned the U.S. Constitution.

“So perish all compromises with tyranny!” he said.

The spectacle animated abolitionists at the time. Framingham resident and “new abolitionist” Brandale Randolph hopes to do the same – 163 years later and with bicycles.

Randolph, 40, founded The 1854 Cycling Company last year to help formerly incarcerated people live freer lives. That is, he wants to train and employ women with prison records to build bikes.

“Even though slavery was abolished as it existed then, it was basically moved to the prisons,” Randolph said. “What happens to a person that has been released from prison?”

The Fugitive Slave Act allowed slaveholders to kidnap men, women and children who had successfully escaped to the North, and return them to the South. Today, 76 percent of formerly incarcerated people are arrested again within five years of their release.

“Were they ever free? Have they ever been released from bondage or the penal system?” Randolph said. “I’d say no.”

Randolph, president of Framingham’s Fair Housing Committee, re—searched what allowed the other 24 percent to stay free. They benefit from supportive communities – with groups and residents who refer them to jobs, not benefit centers – employable skills, and living wages.

Randolph is trying to raise $1.5 million so he can expand his business and pay his future workers well. “I can’t fathom myself sleeping at night, knowing that someone has a job and they are still struggling,” he said.

“I don’t want to be one of those companies that has employees that need to be sustained by government benefits. I want to be a company that not only produces great quality products but also people who are proud of what they do.”

The company’s first bike was The Garrison. It has bullhorn handle bars, foot straps, a light-brown leather seat, and royal blue wheel rims and brake cables. A 15.6-inch computer bag is strapped between the silver frame.

The second, and latest model is The Craft, named after the abolitionists Ellen and William Craft, who in 1848 escaped slavery in Georgia. Ellen, who was fair-skinned, posed as her husband’s owner during their journey north. They later lived in Beacon Hill, but fled to England after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

“I wanted to highlight the power of love and how couples reinvented themse—lves just to escape. That’s how brutal it was.”

Randolph launched his company last year, initially selling $60,000 worth of “Abolitionist” T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. For now, contractors build his bikes on-demand through online sales. He needs more investors before he can train his first group of 10 to 12 employees, he said.

Soon, Randolph plans to begin selling a three-wheel cargo bike that can hold up to 300 pounds. “So if you’re a senior citizen, you can use it to transport your groceries or your grandkids,” he said.

Randolph grew up in poverty in Delhi, Louisiana (pronounced “del-high”). “It’s a one-square-mile, four-traffic-light town. Racially divided, one high school, one elementary school, the next town over is 40 miles away. That type of thing,” he said.

At age 13, he moved to Los Angeles and won a spot in a program that sent poor city kids to private high schools. He later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics.

When Randolph moved to Framingham in 2015 with his wife, a Babson College professor, and their two boys, 10 and 4, he applied for 84 jobs. Four or five companies called him back. Two interviewed him. None hired him.

Randolph had an Ivy League degree and years of experience in finance. He founded and directed the nonprofit Project Poverty in Texas. If he couldn’t get hired, how difficult must it be for former prisoners?

“No one would hire me, so the next option was to create a job for myself,” he said.

He wants to open a factory in downtown Framingham, a walk from the commuter rail stop. Framingham is more supportive of the formerly incarcerated than other communities, but it needs more public transportation, he said.

The campaign to end mass incarceration and abolish prisons as they exist today has multiple fronts. Some activists are training prosecutors to stop asking judges to lock everyone up; others are lobbying lawmakers to repeal mandatory minimum laws.

Randolph sees his role in the campaign as helping those already captured by the prison system. Some civil rights groups want employers to stop making job applicants check a box if they have a criminal record. Randolph has a different approach.

“My vision for the future is more companies that hire the nonviolent formerly incarcerated,” he said. “I want the box to be there but it doesn’t matter. It’s the same way if I check a box that says I’m black, it doesn’t really matter if I have qualifications.”

The bikes of the future will have electric rear wheels that can propel riders nearly 20 mph, Randolph said. Bike-sharing companies like Hubway could soon need technicians who know how to fix those types of bicycles on a large scale.

His future employees could be trained to fill that need.

“And I think that’s a good definition of abolitionism,” Randolph said. “They are contributing members of society now, but they are free. They are truly free.”

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Brandale Randolph