Zelma for President!!!

The woman known as Bicycle Annie has found her way to my pages of Austin memories on several occasions.  During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, she was a frequent sight along the Drag (the part of Guadalupe on the western edge of the UT campus) and other downtown Austin streets.  As her nickname would suggest, she was often on her bicycle or walking along as she pushed it.  Most Austinites and UT students of those decades remember her, some referring to her as the Indian Princess, other referring to her as simply 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.

But, as I learned recently, her real name was Zelma O’Riley.  This information arrived at my doorstep from Diane in Wichita Falls, a relative of Bicycle Annie’s who has been researching her life.  Through an exchange of emails precipitated after she discovered my blog entries, Diane shared with me what she has learned about this well-known, yet unknown, woman who once roamed our streets and garnered a place among local legends.

So, thanks to Diane, I have the opportunity to tell you that 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, who was 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 what I think are the most prescient words I’ve ever heard:  “It will take a woman to save America.”    She saw herself as this 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.”   Also, it is known that as the daughter of a strong Indian woman, one of her main causes throughout her life was Native American rights.

To finance her publication, Zelma sold subscriptions and advertising along the Drag.  But even after she stopped publishing”Up and Down,” she would periodically continued to sell advertising once in a while to fund herself.  It’s possible to believe that she actually intended to publish it again.  Whether her intentions were real or part of a delusion fantasy, many businesses bought “ads” to make her leave them alone.

While stories circulated about her being married to the man of her dreams and his death causing her to go into a depression, Diane says these are not true. She was never married and never had any kids. Her having a house in Hyde Park was also a fiction, although the Blue Bonnet Courts where she appeared to have lived is at the northwestern corner of that neighborhood.

Diane reports that throughout her life, Zelma visited Durant, in addition to Dallas where she stayed with her niece (Diane’s grandmother). Strangely enough, Diane’s uncle went to college in Austin and had many encounters with Zelma although he did not know at the time that 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 understand the judicial system to better “fight the power.”   The law school attendance cannot be verified, but in characterizing Zelma as a pioneer activist, Diane finds it credible.

Apparently, the niece (Diane’s grandmother) knew Zelma suffered from some mental problems and tried to keep up with her without much success.  After her grandmother’s death, 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.

Zelma passed away April 30, 1991, and is buried in Durant in a Choctaw burial ground.

As troubled and  as unconventional as Leslie ( our once-celebrated local transvestite), Zelma is significant to me because she is a piece of the original weirdness of the Austin I knew and loved.   In sharing our memories of her, Zelma links me to other Austinites who cherish yesterday’s city.  While our Indian Princess could be a bit shocking and disagreeable, she made a unique mark in our psyches, tying us to this unique city.

May Zelma remind us — in these times of antipathy toward the homeless — that even the most unappealing person was once child and part of family that cared about them.  And even if we can’t comprehend their world, they are still human beings, deserving of our compassion and understanding.

I hope our Indian Princess is at home resting in a world of peace and love. Austin sends you prayers and remembrance, Zelma.   And on a personal note, I think you were right about a woman president.

About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I worked in the Texas Legislature for 9 years, moved to the State Comptroller's Office where I worked for 9 years, then went to work as an Assistant Attorney General after graduating from UT Law, for more than 20 years. Since retirement in May, 2013, I've identified myself as a writer, a caretaker, widow, grandmother, pandemic survivor, and finder of true love.
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10 Responses to Zelma for President!!!

  1. Albert Bronson says:

    Glad to see that you are publishing more frequently. I’ve missed Now and Thenadays.

    Albert Bronson 970-403-3502 (h) 970-403-4699 (c)

    All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.

    ~Sir Winston Churchill

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  2. Kathryn Anderson says:

    Jeffee, As always, I loved this ! I cannot wait to share it with my 91 year old mom, as we are Choctaw! Mom is 32 per cent and I am 64 per cent. Our ancestors are from near Durant. Mom has somewhere in her home a little photograph book all about Zelma O’Reilly. Her friend John Foshee went around the drag and took photos of Bicycle Annie in the 60s and 70s. I am going to search for that little book tomorrow! Mom remembers well Zelma coming to our house to sell us a “subscription” to the periodicals which never arrived.

    Take care! Kathryn

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    • Kathryn, I’m blown away by your reply to this post. You are 64 percent Choctaw! That’s fascinating, along with the photo book all about Zelma. I would love to see it some day, if your mom finds it. I assume John Foshee is the same man I knew and worked with on some cases. He was a lawyer at the Parks and Wildlife Department, although I think he was in private practice years before that. I had no idea he was a photographer, too. Thanks for reading, Kathryn, and even more so, thanks for replying.

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  3. Christine says:

    Thank you. It is such a pleasure, now that the world isn’t helmed by a madman, to be able to read again, and to read this marvelous article. I confess I don’t remember Annie (I started UT in 1976) but I encountered Leslie often while working across from the Capitol in the early 80s. Thanks to Alan Graham, many who want a home now have one in Austin. He will rest in peace among legions of friends and admirers one day.

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  4. blondintexas says:

    One afternoon, probably in the early 1980’s, I was sitting at a sidewalk café just off Guadalupe when Annie walked by pushing her bicycle. We made eye contact, something I’d never done in all the years of seeing her, and I suddenly found myself inviting her to have a cup of tea with me. To my surprise, she graciously accepted. I can’t remember if she came through the restaurant to get to the patio or if there was a gate, but in short order, she & I were sitting together over tea. She was as gracious and well-mannered as any of my friends in Symphony League, and the years of grime fell away as she told me something about her life. You could tell she was intelligent, well-educated, and genteel. The years and the dust fell away, and I enjoyed our time very much. She never once asked for a handout and thanked me graciously. I don’t think the proprietor was very happy with me, but she was no different under the crusty exterior than anyone else. I’m sure she didn’t remember the encounter afterwards, but it made an impression on me. She had once been a slightly intimidating oddity on the streets of Austin, but I never looked at her that way again, and was saddened when I no longer saw her in the area.

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