This Bike Company Launched a Black Reparations Program. Then the Lawyers Called.
Rivendell Bicycle Works built a loyal following by ignoring convention. But what happens when good intentions spark public outrage in a country divided?
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On September 9, 2019, Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, was standing in front of the company’s beige corrugated garage doors in Walnut Creek, California, talking with Matthew Vernon, an associate professor at UC Davis. Vernon, who teaches medieval and African American literature, had recently had his bike stolen; a friend recommended he check out Rivendell, a boutique bike brand known for its durable steel frames and elegantly welded lugs.
Near the end of their conversation, Petersen bluntly offered an idea he had been workshopping: he could give Vernon a 45 percent discount on a Rivendell, because he was Black. Vernon says he didn’t know how he felt about the gesture, so he didn’t take Petersen up on it immediately.
The U.S. government has paid reparations to Native Americans who had their land forcibly taken and to Japanese Americans who were interned in camps during World War II. In 1865, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, a milestone in reparations for formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants. The orders, made in collaboration with President Abraham Lincoln’s office at the end of the Civil War, confiscated Confederate land and gave 40-acre parcels to thousands of newly freed Black families. Lincoln was assassinated just three months later, the order rescinded, and the land returned to the Confederates.
Recently, a renewed push for reparations has surfaced in Congress. A 33-year old bill, H.R. 40, may finally have the votes to pass the House in 2022, according to some of its key champions. It would create a 13-member commission for an in-depth study of reparations.
Ten months after his visit to Rivendell, Vernon reached out to Petersen. He had replaced his stolen bike, but in the wake of the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd decided he wanted to support people and brands who were doing reparations work. The two shared a correspondence about the racial reckoning and began planning Vernon’s dream bike build.