The Baltimore Defenders - Jawara Oconnor's Custom Cycling Canvas

The Baltimore Defenders - Jawara Oconnor's Custom Cycling Canvas

In the midst of a cross country flight, Jawara “Jay” Oconnor stumbled across a story that inspired him. It was the tale of an American man who escaped slavery, concealed his identity to enlist in the army during the War of 1812, and would later be killed during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry at the Battle of Baltimore. His name was William Williams.

Jay himself grew up in Baltimore, and he’d explored the city from an early age aboard his bike, getting his start in cycling like kids everywhere across the country on a BMX bike. Though he’s since moved away from the city (he now calls Seattle home) and road cycling has become his main pastime, cycling and the city where he grew up shaped his life.

He’s now a commercial airline pilot with “bikes all over the country” depending on where he’s spending days off between work. It's between shifts that Jay also pursues his passion for design – we first met Jay in 2011 when he conceived a jersey for a cycling club he started in Seattle called Rainier Riders. It’s a group of riders that aims to bring better living and health to their community through cycling. They’ve done some great jerseys over the years including the “1899” which celebrated America’s first Black world champion in any sport, the track cycling superstar Major Taylor.

That jersey was a turning point. It showed Jay that a jersey could be much more than a list of sponsors or companies; it could be a rolling canvas. Kits could incorporate some symbolic design elements that provide an opportunity for conversation, storytelling, education. The more creative jerseys piqued the interests of people off the bike, providing the chance to expose the general public to cycling and the deeper stories of the designs.

Nicole and Christopher next to the No.5 cannon of the upper water battery. Ft. McHenry Baltimore, Maryland

So when Jay read about William Williams during that cruising altitude commute home from work (as a passenger), he knew he wanted to capture that story in his next custom creation. It was a tale that celebrated an unsung American hero and a city that played such an important role in the young history of the US.

William Williams was born Frederick Hall, a slave of mixed Black and White descent who escaped to freedom in the early 19th Century. At the age of 21, he disguised his identity to enlist in the Army’s 38th Infantry in April of 1814. The name William Williams was a pseudonym that he used, since freedom seekers and Black Americans at the time were not legally allowed to enlist in the military. Perhaps it was his light complexion and freckles that allowed him to fight for a country that did not even believe Fredrick Hall deserved basic human rights or dignity.

Less than five months later, the British advanced on Baltimore and the military brass ordered Williams and the rest of the 38th to march to Ft. McHenry and defend it. During the Battle of Baltimore on September 13 and 14th, “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air” bombarded the city as Sir Francis Scott Key would immortalize in his Star Spangled Banner. Key wrote those famous lyrics while imprisoned on a British ship in the Baltimore Harbor during the fight. It was one of those bombs that struck Ft. McHenry, in the very corner where William Williams fought in defense.

The cannonball blew Williams’ leg completely off – it was a wound that would eventually kill him two months later. He died for his country in one of the most iconic battles in American History the night the National Anthem was conceived. His story has been mostly forgotten and hidden on the odd museum plaque or in a few corners of the Internet.

Jay in his Custom Rainier Riders Cycling Club Kit

After reading this story, Jay knew he wanted his next jersey to celebrate this moment in history. This man died believing in a country that didn’t believe in him. The event inspired the National Anthem, a song that is now recognized the world over in a city that shaped the future of the United States. His medium of choice would be one of his favorites, a custom cycling kit.  

And so, the kits are a detailed homage to the uniforms that the soldiers of the 38th Infantry wore that day. He worked with Jason at Voler’s custom design team to replicate the textures of the finest textiles of 1814 onto the high-performance blended fabrics that we use for cycling clothes today. From the cuffs and buttons to the sashes and the vests and caps, these kits are more than just replicas; they are rolling celebrations of a forgotten past.  

They are exactly what Jay hopes a cycling jersey can be. An opportunity for people to be excited about cycling. To be excited about the story behind the design. For people to learn and to celebrate the many small stories, the threads of exceptional humanity and action, of all different shades, woven together throughout our country’s young history, to make it the place that it is today.

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