How Kittie Knox Changed Bicycling Forever
September 10, 2019
From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change
Let me tell you about my hero. Kittie Knox is the reason that bicycling is more than just another leisure sport for the wealthy. As a Black teenager, she created the world that she wanted to see from the seat of her bike. Today, you can see the results of Knox’s success in the hundreds of cities around the globe where a bicycle is used to have a happier commute, as a social galvanizer among disparate individuals, as a political leveraging tool, or for tall bike jousting.
Much has been written of the bicycle as the great liberator of wealthy women from restrictive clothing. But as you will see here, it was working-class women like Knox who changed the paradigm and made the bicycle into an actual liberator of women. While the upper classes clung to long, awkward skirts and tried to prevent women from embracing social bicycling at all, Knox was out there showing them how it was done and what the future would hold.
Ideas of feminism have evolved in tremendous ways over the past 130 years since her day and Knox’s version essentially won history—not for accepting the norms of her time but for rejecting them in favor of her own view of the world. Naturally, this made for an unpleasant and bumpy journey as she offended each and every stalwart. But that’s what is involved in political change—not everyone is going to like it.
Kittie Knox was born in 1874 near the African American community in Cambridgeport, a suburb of Boston. Her mother was white, from rural Maine, while her father was Black, relocated from Philadelphia to become a tailor and cleaner. Her father was a lifelong activist. In 1850, as the country braced for its first race war, he petitioned Massachusetts for the right of Black men to join the state militia.
Knox’s neighborhood was a cultural melting pot of poor Blacks, Irish workers, recent immigrants, poor whites, and absentee landlords. Next door to her childhood home, a Black barber shared property with a Russian-Jewish cobbler, adjacent to an Irish bar and liquor store. Throughout the next decade, southern Italian and eastern European Jewish people began to displace the formerly affluent residents of Boston’s South End, creating greater cultural acceptance for disenfranchised people through the city.
Boston held a long legacy of abolitionist thinking, particularly in Knox’s neighborhood. The Civil War had ended a decade before Knox’s birth and middle-class lifestyles suddenly felt attainable for Black families.
When police began raiding and hassling transient bars for liquor violations in Knox’s neighborhood, it was Black leaders, including Knox’s father, who held a protest. The Black leaders demanded more police protection from the white people’s “disorder.” (Let’s think about that for a minute. It’s hard to imagine Cambridgeport of the 1880s where Black leaders felt like the police were in service to their communities rather than existing as a threat.)
In the 1890s, white families worked upwardly mobile—though unskilled—factory jobs. Black families were not offered this luxury. Black workers typically were porters, waiters, and servants. Knox’s brother was a steamfitter, a skilled profession. Her parents separated when she was very young and her father died when she was only seven years old. Teenaged Knox became a dressmaker and seamstress.
In 1893, the U.S. was hit by one of the worst economic depressions in its history and suffered high unemployment. Conditions were poor ever prior to that. In Knox’s neighborhood, the average working person earned $500 per year (less than $14,000 in today’s dollars). In today’s dollars, skilled female garment workers like Knox earned only about $112 per week.
THE BICYCLE BOOM
In 1860 the Bicycle Boom began in France on penny farthings—bikes with a large front wheel and tiny rear one. In 1876 Alfred Chandler branded himself as the U.S.’s first cyclist. Bicycling was a highly adventurous and dangerous sport. The pedals were mounted directly to the wheel and brakes had not yet been invented so the rider’s muscles had to be stronger than the machine’s propulsion. Then the rider had to jump off to stop. Of course, one rock or an uneven road was sufficient to send the rider flying—particularly since the bikes were able to reach tremendous top speeds under the legs of a competent pilot.
In 1890, when the “bicycle boom” hit full steam, many cycling clubs rapidly sprung up all over Boston, where cycling was most popular. These cycling clubs would travel to nearby towns for riding competitions, social fun, politicking, and advocacy. Each club’s membership was adorned with a signature hat and they had mascots and floats, like parades for modern sports teams. During the offseason, the members bowled played billiards and baseball and danced together.
In 1893, a new bike would cost about $2,500 in today’s dollars or twenty weeks of Knox’s salary. Somehow she managed to scrape the money together and purchase one, as well as the leisure time to ride it relentlessly. She joined the Riverside Cycle Club, Boston’s Black club.
At a time before cars, cyclists would often go on long rides from their homes to the open suburbs and countryside and back through streets clogged with wagons, carts, horses, and trolleys. In 1893, Knox made the news for the first time. The Indianapolis Freeman, 800 miles away, took note of Knox’s “graceful” competitive cycling at Martha’s Vineyard. Knox was still a teenager. She was on her way to stardom. Her homemade outfits resembling a twist on the classic garb of a teenage boy turned heads and when people saw her magnetic personality and stunning appearance, the public took more and more notice of her. She placed in the top 20% of every ride that she ever competed in, many of which were at least 100 miles long. She was a faster and more skilled rider than most men. More importantly, Knox made cycling appear fun rather than a complicated social activity for the wealthy with a lot of rules. As you might imagine, this upset the men—and more so the women—who benefited from cycling remaining as an exclusive club sport for the wealthy.
Cycling was socially complicated. Even in Boston, cyclists had to negotiate their social hubs along with the divisions of gender, religion, ethnicity, and class. In a city full of recent immigrants, most Boston cyclists were upper-middle-class professionals. So for those in the working classes, cycling was a road map to social acceptance among the wealthy elite.
The League of American Wheelmen was created to unite all of the individual cycling clubs into one national organization for maximum advocacy weight. Early league members included the wealthiest people of the era, including oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. The League collected dues from members and issued cards to participate in their national events. The dues were used to finance a number of national campaigns that still continue today, like the right to use the road in the first place, the right to bring bicycles on transit, and the right to ride without harassment from law enforcement.
For the most part, the League was successful on only two campaigns: the right to ride at night and the right to ride on Sundays. It’s fairly amazing that in most places, bicyclists are still having the same fights as they were 130 years ago. It might be time to re-evaluate the strategy but at least we can ride on Sundays now.
THE COLOR BAR
While the end of the Civil War was expected to heal the lingering pains of racism in the U.S., all was not going as planned. Civil War Reconstruction hit a new low in the late 1880s when Jim Crow laws were introduced to maintain institutional racism. The Federal Election Bill (FEB), drafted by a representative from Knox’s district, proposed that federal supervisors would ensure local elections were conducted fairly. The FEB’s true purpose was to ensure that Black men would be allowed to vote in the south as the law now allowed. The FEB failed by a single vote. Seemingly in response, lynchings hit an all-time high in 1892.
In Boston, interracial marriage was socially acceptable, with poor white immigrants and Black laborers often marrying and having children. In 1877, 38% of Blacks in Boston married whites.
But while mixed-race children like Knox were common and accepted in Boston, the cycling community had a difficult time accepting people who were not white. The League of American Wheelmen had membership all over the country. Starting in 1892, William Watts, an attorney and former Confederate colonel from Louisville, began lobbying for the League to exclude its few hundred Black members from the organization—one of whom was Kittie Knox. The first two votes failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to change the organization’s bylaws but this only served to further ignite the powder keg. Matters of race were becoming so divisive that clubs disbanded when the second vote to remove Black riders failed. By 1894, the issue had hit a fever pitch and the 36,567 members voted to alter the constitution to say “none but white persons can become members of the League.”
The next day, the Massachusetts state legislature introduced a resolution to denounce “the color bar,” employing states’ rights to overrule it within their own borders. The League of American Wheelmen had an office in Boston that also vocally opposed the national color bar and the Riverside Cycle Club protested the League’s decision.
The League was a social organization for amateur cyclists, meaning only that members did not compete as professional athletes. There were many affiliated cyclists without membership cards who tagged along to their events. The benefits and meaning of League membership were nebulous camaraderies at best.
Even though the color bar was written by a lawyer, Watts had made a crucial mistake of language. There was the sticky matter of Black cyclists like Kittie Knox who had joined the league before the color bar was passed. They were not excluded by the new rule, though the organization’s view of them was clear. Watts’ primary argument in favor of the color bar was that it was the only way to grow League membership, as he claimed the presence of Black cyclists kept white members from joining. In reality, the opposite was true: The League’s membership dropped by about a third—more than ten thousand cyclists—during the year after the passing of the color bar.
A “MASCULINE” WOMAN
The invention of the modern “safety bicycle,” in 1885 drew women to cycling in massive numbers. The new design with two equal-sized wheels resolved the dangers of the penny farthing, which was inclined to face plant cyclists onto the pavement. Prior to 1888, women tended to ride tricycles instead of penny farthings. Aside from the physical dangers and skills involved, the choice of three wheels was also considered to be one of elegance and femininity. But women were quick to abandon three wheels. The safety bicycle invention made the tricycle so thoroughly obsolete that no one was even manufacturing them anymore by 1892. With the advent of mass production and the bicycle craze in full effect, the price of bicycles plummeted and virtually everyone could afford them for basic transportation. What was once a hobby of the well-to-do became a completely pedestrian activity.
Bicycling wasn’t equally accessible to everyone, however. Women cyclists of the era wore restrictive, long, and expensive Victorian skirts. Recent legislation for women to receive the right to vote had failed. Now men were trying to eject women from previously co-ed cycling clubs as well. Splintering and tension started to coalesce around bicycling.
The Wheelwoman was a Boston magazine dedicated to dictating conservative moral norms and publishing snide remarks about the audacity of women cyclists. The editor, Mary Sargent Hopkins, saw her audience as middle-class women and wanted to help them attain “physical perfection” and “erase the tired look in their eyes and the tense lines around their mouths.” She believed that women should be adorned in silver and gold and carry a mirror and powder box in their tricycle bags. Mary even believed that women empowering themselves through cycling would heal their husbands of their worst traits writing, “When woman reigns supreme over the kingdom of home, clothed in the royal garments of understanding, she will no longer tolerate or condone uncleanness in a husband, brother, or son.”
Mary had discovered bicycling in 1884—before the craze captivated the nation. Hopkins was in her forties during the beginning of the craze and went on long-distance tricycle tours with large groups of women. She would arrange for wagons to bring them picnic luncheons that they would enjoy while a cellist entertained them. As cycling was mainstreamed, Hopkins and her husband moved from Brooklyn to the epicenter in Boston and she launched The Wheelwoman.
Hopkins attempted to frame herself as the foremost expert on women’s cycling. In her cultured society that meant proper skirt length, using the correct fork at dinner, and employing manners and attitude that she deemed appropriate. She went on speaking tours to address the “horror of the bloomers” on women and to insist that women should stick to tricycles. During one of these talks, she admitted to heading outside one night with her husband’s bicycle—under cover of darkness—and finding that she didn’t like it much. Thus no other woman should either.
Mary Hopkins was a holdover to the conservative values of the previous era. The Wheelwoman published an apocalyptic visioning of the pitfalls of women participating in such wholesome activities as wearing pants and riding on two wheels. Similarly, another publication, Wheelmen’s Gazette published an illustration of a man on a safety attempting to kiss a woman on a safety, losing his balance, and crashing onto the ground. While you might see this as a humorous cartoon about a daring man, there was also a certain subtext at the time that this crash was actually the woman’s fault.
Mary associated with the upper crust, with an office down the street from the suffrage movement office—a movement born of wealthy women not allowed to have jobs or hobbies outside of the home. Hopkins is the most likely link between bicycling and the movement for women’s right to vote. Hence Hopkins is likely the influence for suffragist Susan B. Anthony’s famous quote, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than perhaps anything else in the world.” Ironically, Hopkins’ vision for women’s bicycling didn’t seem to adhere to that quote whatsoever.
As opposed to the diamond frames of today, women’s safety bicycles featured smaller front wheels than rear ones to accommodate a woman’s skirt. Mary told The New York Times, “If there is one thing I hate... it is a masculine woman. It has made my heart sore to see women who have been putting on knickerbockers, riding the diamond-frame wheel, and racing and scorching with the men. It has made wheeling just another way for women to make a fool of herself, bringing cycling into disrepute, and making herself the laughing stock of the people. She has made a hallway sort of creature of herself. She can’t be a man, and she is a disgrace as a woman. If a woman wants to dress like a Turk, she should put on the veil as well, so that no one will know who she is.”
According to Lorenz J. Finison, author of “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society,” Hopkins’ views were both cultural and generational. He explained to me, “I suspect that Mary Sargent Hopkins was reacting against influences in her life to defend the status quo. Both of Mary’s husbands were dissolute characters. Her aunt was a freethinker in the 1830s. A lot has been written about the bicycle as the great liberator of women in this era but that’s not entirely true. Mary was the major writer and publisher on women’s bicycling at the time and she featured one article after another defending the fact that women should never abandon the long skirt and other conservative values of the era.”
After tricycle sales tanked, women stopped going on Mary’s beloved tricycle tours and her influence began to slip. As the times changed, Mary reluctantly did too. She participated in a women’s group who attempted to make the transition from tricycle to safety bicycle together. She started wearing shorter skirts but abhorred to find that she was no longer the cutting edge of women’s cycling fashion and expertise that she craved to be.
Naturally, as teenaged Kittie Knox took the limelight, Mary Hopkins found a new target for her classist and sexist ire, becoming perhaps the biggest critic of Knox and her activism, attire, and cycling flair. Hopkins cited grounds for disapproval that Knox rode a men’s bicycle, preferred bloomers to a skirt, and was bringing notoriety to the sport in a bad way. She wrote of one of Knox’s public demonstrations, “The whole affair was unpleasant and was given a great deal more prominence by the newspapers than it deserved.” And indeed, as Knox excelled, the mainstream newspapers spent more time commenting on her appearance than her performance.
Finison explained why Hopkins took such an oppositional stance to Knox: “It took a long time for women’s fashion to change. Hopkins was the most influential writer and publisher on women’s bicycling in the 1890s and carried a large influence on older women. While it scandalized the older generation, pushing a heavy, broad-framed bicycle through the mud was just something that young women like Kittie Knox weren’t willing to do when they could ride a diamond frame. Look at pictures of women after 1900 and you’ll still see long skirts and women’s drop frame bikes.”
So that’s how Kittie Knox, a strong, capable, and confident woman came to embody the perfect enemy of The Wheelwoman. You can read issues in the UMass library but it’s like a torturous issue of Women’s Health dictating how to trick a man into marriage when you really wanted Teen Vogue to tell you about the radical history and the empowerment of carving your own path. If Mary Hopkins had her way, a bicycle would still cost what a car does and it would be reserved for the most wealthy elites to look down and judge the rest of us.
CLASS WAR ESCALATION
In the 1890s, the Black social class was largely determined by attitude, stability, occupation, and aspiration. In many ways, Kittie Knox was more marginal as a woman than she was for being Black. The times were changing though. The rush for women to trade in their restrictive long skirts in favor of bloomers to ride their safety bicycles was threatening to men in and out of the cycling community, who dubbed them “the bloomer girls.” Hopkins went as far as saying that the bicycle was not “for disgusting exhibitions, unwomanly garb, and monkey-like attitudes.” It’s hard to tell if that final jab was nested in the racist attitudes of her social class and era or if she just hated monkeys. (But it was probably the former.)
Scorchers—fast riders—were looked down upon as members of the lower classes. The Wheelwoman published a guest editorial saying, “I have lifted up my voice with considerable vim against the menace to life and limb and the ‘scorcher.’ The police, however, have done and are doing much to correct this evil, and I trust the day is not far distant when one can go about our streets free from the terror of this individual.” She went on to say “Wheeling should be for health and recreation, excess in speed or distance should be carefully guarded against, for it will certainly do more harm than good, and bring condemnation on the wheel itself.”
While Mary Hopkins abhorred long-distance cycling, she participated in it herself and never once spoke ill of Annie Londonderry, who cycled around the entire world in 1894, presumably because Londonderry was a white woman who had become a self-made wealthy entrepreneur. Londonderry was popular in the press and good at marketing herself so it’s likely that Hopkins was afraid that by bad-mouthing a popular white woman, her slipping influence might disappear completely.
In July of 1895, Kittie Knox won first prize in a costume contest in Waltham for her homemade gray knickerbocker suit—a major compliment to her skills as a seamstress. Knox had sewn an outfit similar to what a young boy would wear and improved on its practicality for cycling. The audience hissed disapprovingly as she accepted first prize. They felt that the winner should be a white girl in an expensive long skirt.
On the same day as Knox’s victory at Waltham Cycle Park, the East Boston Carnival Committee hosted a parade with hundreds of cyclists and floats. The Irish Catholic carnival committee forbid the participation of the Mavericks, who were Protestant, as they didn’t want trouble. The Boston Board of Aldermen granted the Protestants the right to hold their own bicycle parade separately, lest the more privileged group be left out of the fun. Despite protection from the state militia, the two groups skirmished and riots broke out. One Irish Catholic man died from a gunshot wound.
Mary Hopkins responded to this tragedy by making fun of Irish stereotypes and dialects in her next issue and public lectures. Mary’s audience was made up of middle-class Protestants who found her inappropriate humor quite amusing and edifying of their dominant worldview. Just like today, using one’s privilege to make fun of others’ tragedy was socially acceptable behavior. Hopkins’ behavior continued to drive a wedge to divide a splintered cycling community.
Despite the tragedy, Knox was bolstered by her victory in Waltham. Winning first prize convinced her to make the trip in a few days to the League of American Wheelmen’s annual meeting. She knew that she would be unwelcome there but also that her presence would be important and that she would be supported by parts of her community.
COLD WAR AT ASBURY PARK
The clubs had been debating whether to have the League’s next annual meeting in Boston or Asbury Park, NJ. Boston had greater amenities for cycling and was, by all accounts, more deserving. However, if the event was held in Boston, Black cyclists would be able to participate. So the membership chose New Jersey instead.
Asbury Park was a planned resort community with 3,000 year-round residents on the Jersey Shore. The upper-class resort was not a welcome destination for Kittie Knox, even without the color bar. In an effort to keep out riff-raff and make the resort attractive for elite whites, the city didn’t even allow trains to stop within city limits on Sundays. But an upper-class resort required a number of visible Black laborers that rivaled the population. And they visited local restaurants and the beach as well.
Knox made the trip to Asbury Park by train and boat. She triumphantly rode into town with 30 other Boston cyclists. Newspapers wrote of her arrival as a full member of the League. After all, she had joined before the color bar had passed. Knox knew that her appearance would be controversial but maintained her pride. She biked up to the clubhouse, performing fancy trick maneuvers until she was asked to stop. Reporters had a field day depicting her riding abilities. The Trenton Evening Times insulted Knox’s outfit, saying “riding habits so loud that the Pilgrim Fathers must have been shocked... [Knox] was scorned and frowned upon by visitors from Dixie.”
When Knox showed up the next morning and presented her League membership card for a participant badge, she was told that she was “in the wrong house.” Rather than make a ruckus, Knox held her head up high and walked out with her bike. The San Francisco Call reported that 99% of people interviewed were sympathetic to Knox about her rejection.
Leaders argued vehemently about whether or not Knox could participate. Grudgingly, her membership card was honored and her badge granted. Her agile, expert ridership was described in the national press as “far ahead of her lighter-hued sisters” and “when she appears in the street she receives more attention than a half dozen star racing men.”
That night at the dance, Knox was the most popular woman on the dance floor. She attended the ball wearing a large leghorn hat, a pink waist, and a black skirt. The New York Times wrote, “Young fellows made her quite the lion of the evening ball last night by dancing with her and she enjoyed the sensation she created as the only colored person in the building.” Upon Knox’s arrival on the dance floor, the racists fled the hall like a bomb had gone off and Knox had more room to dance, impress boys, and steal the show once again.
But all was not well. Knox was refused service at many restaurants and hotels in Asbury Park. The Boston Journal wrote, “The insult to Miss Knox should be so thoroughly resented by those in authority that all promoters of the feeling against her should be disciplined by the organization.” But it was clear that Knox’s presence had shifted the conversation, challenged hardened views, and accomplished what it needed to. She was a better rider and had made her case for a seat at the proverbial table.
A CRAZED DECLINE
Even during the bicycle craze, Knox was a true pioneer, sparking a public debate about the color bar and exerting her right to be recognized and admitted as a member of the League. Her presence pushed the League to confront the issue in its Bulletin. “Can a negro be a member of the L.A.W.,” a member asked, “as it appears Miss Knox of Boston is?” In response, the League explained, “Miss Katie J. Knox joined the League, April 1, 1893. The word ‘white’ was put into the constitution, Feb. 20, 1894. Such laws are not and cannot be retroactive.”
Within another week, Knox had thrust issues of race and gender into the national spotlight as papers all over the country wrote about the conundrum that she had illuminated. Did fair and equal treatment under the law allow Black people carte blanche to join organizations open to the general public? Would delicate, wealthy white egos be tarnished forever?
After the initial meet-up of the League, in which Knox’s participation was challenged due to her race, she visited the Philadelphia Meteors, a Black Ethiopian cycling club. The Meteors took her to the Tioga Races and to see fireworks. Her time in Philly makes it is clear that Knox wasn’t a bicyclist just to be competitive. She participated in cycling to become part of a community and to have fun. Knox was the favorite topic of the press but she preferred quietly globetrotting and relating with like-minded people over being a celebrity or building her brand. Knox’s trip after Asbury Park warmed my heart because it shows that she valued making friends, building a cultural network of homestays and community, and creating a tradition of shared cultural values similar to what my friends and I value today.
Knox eventually went home to Boston and was chosen as the ride leader for the League of American Wheelmen’s Massachusetts division summer meet, a multi-day ride through the country. A magazine article from this time noted Knox’s behavior during dinner in a restaurant one night with 50 other riders. The writer was impressed by Knox’s enthusiasm and ability to handle long distances without ruining her mood, conversational skills, and while still having fun. Like all articles about her at the time, they also mentioned how attractive she was. And the fact that she was Black in a sea of white men. On that trip, Knox socialized as an equal in camp and while riding with the men.
In August of 1895, the Partridge White Ribbon Open Century was almost canceled by a thunderstorm. Nonetheless, a handful of riders—including Knox— joyfully completed the 100-mile ride, albeit covered in mud. Knox was the only woman to finish. It seemed for a minute like cycling might have accepted her as one of their best and brightest.
And then it happened again. Knox was refused participation in the next century, despite the event beginning in Boston. The event was run by the Boston Wheelmen, a new club that had formed in her hometown that had decided not to allow any Black participants. When the Boston Standard contacted the captain of the Boston Wheelmen, he explained that he opposed the decision but a majority of members had demanded it. He said that he felt overwhelmed by the strength of their views and numbers. Fifteen Black men were also turned away, though not before they had submitted entries and made arrangements to ride.
Black cyclists felt like their country had promised them equality, and responded to this discrimination by organizing in dignified ways through their neighborhoods and churches. Members of the Colored National League launched an investigation into the exclusion of the Black cyclists from the League of American Wheelmen. A member of a different Black club from the West End, Meander Bicycle Club, testified to the Colored National League about the degree with which Black cyclists had been excluded. The Colored National League and Meander Bicycle Club discussed discrimination and expressions of rights as U.S. citizens. Questions arose about whether exclusion from a cycling club qualified under public accommodation laws. The group lacked the political strength that even the League had but it was important for these groups to organize as it would slowly change public views.
Once again, Kittie Knox made her mark on history. Commonwealth was a new cycling club that was created when some men in the Massachusetts Bicycle Club had refused to ride with women. The club was divided in two, one coed and one for men only. On September 29, Knox rode with the coed Commonwealth century to Newburyport. Other Massachusetts cycling clubs responded to Knox’s participation in Commonwealth by enacting their own color bars. Knox was continually forcing the issue but it just made people dig in their heels instead of accepting that she was a valid and excelling member of their community.
Lines were increasingly drawn in the sand. The Boston Globe ran an article about a civil lawsuit for Knox’s retracted invitation from the Boston Wheelmen ride. In November, Century Road Club of America advertised a century “without a color line” and entries were processed by Charles Percival, a vocal supporter of Kittie Knox. But foul weather delayed the ride and when it did happen attendance was poor due to mud, rain, and fog. The pacemaker broke down and riders got lost, ending up 30 miles off the route. The end of 1895 was full of heartbreak, particularly when the civil suit against the Boston Wheelmen was dismissed and the filing parties were forced to pay legal fees for both sides.
Continuing to stir the pot in 1896, Knox’s Riverside Cycling Club attempted to organize their own century ride and Black cyclists formed plans to meet in Washington, D.C. to create a separate Colored League of American Wheelmen. The founding convention was going to feature a parade and a race for Black riders only. But the organizers were not able to find a track that would rent to a group of Black cyclists and the new organization fizzled before it ever materialized. Soon after, the Riverside Cycling Club stopped meeting and organizing as well. It wasn’t just the Black community where cycling was fizzling out. Recreational bicycling news stopped filling up papers, which began to focus on professional racers. Bicycle sales dwindled and crashed as the market was thoroughly saturated. Bike manufacturers were no longer able to financially support the League’s efforts. It was officially the end of the cycling craze.
ALL BUT FORGOTTEN
Knox visited Paris to ride her bike and socialize in 1896. She performed in a theater production in New York City later that year, Isham’s “Octoroons.“ Producer John W. Isham was a Black man who was frequently assumed to be white. He successfully put on many plays to advance the narrative of the Black experience into the American consciousness. Knox was one of many women chosen for her attractiveness as well as the ability to sing and dance.
Like bicycling, Knox disappeared from the press after that and then from the world. She died of kidney failure from chronic nephritis in 1906 and was buried in an unmarked grave. To the press, she was a cycling superstar, but she was also a very young, poor mixed-race woman in a racist country. She never had children. Her mother died shortly thereafter, followed by her brother’s suicide. Over 100 years after all of their deaths, Knox’s importance to the history of bicycling was unearthed when Lorenz J. Finison began to research his book “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900.” Finison read articles and reviewed old newspaper reports, wondering why he hadn’t learned about Knox previously.
Despite being forgotten, Knox’s reverberations continued to be felt after her death. Even when her legacy was temporarily lost, her impacts are not. Cycling re-emerged in Chicago during the Great Depression and this time the movement was much like Knox’s vision. Cyclists in the 1930s and 40s were social and recreational. They bonded together under a common experience on two wheels as fuel and car tires were rationed for World War II. As people tightened their belts in the U.S., bicycles were again a preferred form of transport and the League came back to life as a social club in 1942. In the spirit of Kittie Knox, women began to take a prominent role in club leadership and century riders began to wear casual clothes instead of specialized outfits. Still, while the issue of the color bar didn’t come up in the League newsletter or any magazines, the photos from this era exclusively feature white people.
THEN TO NOW
Kittie Knox had been born into a world that promised big. She paid her dues in every sense of the meaning and tried to take everyone up on the promises made to her. She pushed back when things were not as advertised. She knew how to pick a fight and was comfortable doing so. And more importantly, she has influenced the shift of bicycling from an elite upscale sport to a hobby that can be enjoyed by people from all backgrounds and experiences. As a result, she’s a powerful icon and inspiration to re-calibrate bicycling advocacy today.
Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine a historical biopic where Kittie Knox was a bit more militant, akin to Malcolm X, the charismatic Black leader who led his followers to defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” I picture her working alongside a more peaceful advocate, Major Taylor, who repeatedly states, “if you give me what I want you won’t have to deal with her,” akin to the dynamic between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Indeed, these dynamics are what influences leaders and change the world. You need the loud firecracker and the person of influence who understands the issues sufficiently to take a seat at the table.
Knox followed in the activist footsteps of her father and their community. She was a better performer than the men, especially in her dramatic, off-beat, homemade outfits. But at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough. Even when numerous notable Boston celebrities spoke up in favor of Knox’s participation in the sport, built on a long history of the abolitionist spirit, that wasn’t enough either. It would be another 80 years before the color bar was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act and stripped from U.S. culture and even then, the attitudes didn’t change. Even when businesses and employers were forced not to discriminate against Black people, they couldn’t be forced to respect them. These shifting attitudes were changed only as generations died off and new ones recognized the errors of their parents’ ways. Well, that and massive lunch counter protests and marches on Washington built from cornerstone coalitions. These things will continue their dramatic shift but Knox isn’t alive to see her vision through.
When you go on a bike ride to the corner store or to nowhere in particular with your friends, that’s Kittie Knox. When you can buy a bicycle for less than a week’s wages, that’s Kittie Knox. When you go on a ride wearing street clothes instead of dayglo or spandex, that’s her too. When you attend a bike fun event and meet people from other cities and the only thing that you have in common is your love of the bicycle as a cultural ambassador, think of Kittie Knox.
The historical record of the League’s activities no longer resides in the organization’s offices but in the UMass library in Boston. However, you still won’t find mention of Kittie Knox in it. And while you can find archived versions of Mary Sargent Hopkins’ sexist The Wheelwoman magazine at UMass library, you won’t find any copies at the Library of Congress, as they have “lost” all of their originals.
If nothing else, at least we still have one more teenage girl as a role model. I think we owe her at least that much. So if you’ll excuse me I have a Civil Unrest Bicycle Club ride for disabled people to attend.
Joe Biel is a self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker who draws origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock. He is the founder and CEO of Microcosm Publishing and co-founder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He has been featured in a diverse range of publications from Time Magazine to Utne Reader. He is the author of Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business on the Spectrum, Manspressions: Decoding Men’s Behavior, Bicycle Culture Rising, and more. He also is the director of five feature films and hundreds of short films, including Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, $100 & A T-Shirt, and the Groundswell film series. He lives in Portland, OR.