As many of you may recall, I’ve mentioned Bicycle Annie on several occasions in these pages. She was a woman who, during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, could invariably be found along the Drag and other downtown Austin streets, be it on her bicycle or walking, sometimes with crutches, sometimes just pushing the bicycle. Most Austinites and UT students of those decades remember her, some referring to her as the Indian Princess, others using the sobriquet, Bicycle Annie. She seemed to eschew interaction with others (if not outright resent it) and, was, accordingly, left alone with the mental issues we assumed upon her.
Last week, I was surprised to hear from Diane in Wichita Falls, a relative of Bicycle Annie’s who has been researching her life. Through an exchange of emails, brought about after she discovered my blog entries, she shared with me what she has learned about this well-known, but unknown, woman who once roamed our streets and gained a place in our memories as a local legend. More importantly, I hope we never forget that even the most unappealing homeless person was once part of family who, we can only hope, cared about them.
So, thanks to Diane, I have the opportunity to introduce you to Zelma O’Riley, a.k.a. Bicycle Annie, a.k.a, the Indian Princess. Zelma was from Durant, Oklahoma where her father, John O’Riley was a professor. John and wife, Mary Catherine Harkins, had five other children including, Lester, Arlee, Zula, Lula, Ora, and Lela. Mary Catherine was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian who actually came to Durant on the “Trail of Tears.” The family was purportedly very wealthy, and raised their children quite traditionally. Zelma, purportedly very intelligent, moved to Fort Worth for a few years, and then finally to Austin to go to college at UT. Here she started the publication “Up and Down the Drag” in 1941.
In an edition of “Up and Down” from November, 1947, she wrote, “It will take a woman to save America.” She apparently saw herself as a potential savior of the country, and explained that her principal campaign plank was: preparedness. The advertisement read “Vote for Zelma O’Riley for First Woman President of the United States – she is Irish, she is Indian and she will care for you.” Important causes were important to the free-spirited Zelma. As the true daughter of a strong Indian woman, one of her main cause was Native American rights.
To finance her publication, Zelma sold subscriptions and advertising along the Drag. Her family believes that after she stopped publishing”Up and Down the Drag,” however, she continued to sell advertising once in a while to fund herself. I’m wondering if maybe she was delusional and, at times, actually intended to publish it again, but never following through with it.
As Diane says, the stories about her being married to the man of her dreams and his death causing her to go into a depression are not true. She was never married and never had any kids. The house in Hyde Park, also was not true, although the Blue Bonnet Courts where she appeared to have lived is at the northwestern corner of the subdivision.
Diane reports that Zelma visited Durant often throughout her life and visited her grandmother (Zelma’s niece) in Dallas often as well. Strangely enough, Diane’s uncle went to college in Austin and had many encounters with Zelma although he did not know at the time he was her great-nephew. He only knew her as “Bicycle Annie” for years. Additionally, there are rumors that she attended Law School at one point to better understand the judicial system so she could better “fight the power.” The law school attendance can not be verified, although it would not surprise Diane, who characterizes Zelma as a pioneer activist.
Apparently, the niece (Diane’s grandmother) knew Zelma suffered from some mental problems and tried to keep up with her, with not much success. It was after her grandmother’s death when Diane found Zelma’s obituary and a few copies of “Up and Down the Drag” among her things, which sparked her interest in this unusual relative. She will share those with me in the future (and I will share here!)
Zelma passed away April 30, 1991, and is buried in Durant in a Choctaw burial ground.
As I write this, I realize that this woman, albeit troubled and in her own way as unconventional as today’s Leslie ( our local transvestite), is significant to me because she is a link to the Austin I knew and loved. In sharing our memories of Bicycle Annie, she also links me to others who remember her so vividly. While she could be a bit shocking and offputting, she made little marks in our psyche that tie us to a past in this city. Also, the longer we live, the more we understand that – while she may have lived in a world of her own making that we couldn’t understand – it never made her less human, less deserving of our compassion and understanding.
Austin sends you prayers and remembrance, Zelma. I hope you have found a place of rest and peace, Indian Princess.