In the late 1800s, the American bicycle boom was in full force. Changes in the construction of the bicycle, like a steerable front wheel and drive chains, had made them safer and easier to ride. No longer stuck with an unwieldy boneshaker or penny farthing, the safety bicycle—the precursor to our modern bicycles—offered riders a new accessible form of transportation that led to a significant cultural and social shift. Women in particular enjoyed a newfound freedom of mobility, and the bicycle in turn helped to set the stage for a growing women’s rights movement.
Boston was a hotspot of the boom, reportedly where the country’s first bicycle club was formed. It was also in Beantown that a young woman named Kittie Knox picked up her first bike, and rode off into both cycling and civil rights history.
Born Katherine Towle Knox on October 7, 1874 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of a white mother, Katherine Towle, and a Black father, John H. Knox. Her father died when she was young, and in her teenage years Knox began working as a seamstress. But somewhere in there she discovered bikes and that delicious taste of freedom they provide everyone who swings a leg over the saddle. Saving her seamstress earnings, she bought herself a bicycle—a significant expense on a small salary, and at a time when the majority of bike ownership was predominantly white urban middle and upper class dudes.
Knox first drew attention in 1893, when she and a friend traveled to Martha’s Vineyard to ride. Here, the Indiana Freeman, the first illustrated Black newspaper, took note of her “graceful” cycling. While her cycling skills and abilities were exceptional, it was typically the color of her skin and what she wore on the bike that elicited the most response from the press and anyone who saw her ride. “The beautiful and buxom black bloomerite,” wrote The Referee and Cycle Trade Journal.
Using her seamstress skills, Knox sewed her own cycling outfits. Her quest for a functional cycling kit went against the strict gender norms of the day, opting for bloomers instead of the long skirts and dresses—a “road gown” as one newspaper called them—most commonly worn by women at the time. Her look was revolutionary. While bloomers had first gained notoriety in 1851, even the cycling women around Knox who challenged gender norms with the rational clothing movement did so most often by opting for shorter skirts instead of long ones; bloomers were Knox’s thing.
How she looked of course had nothing to do with her abilities—although a more practical outfit certainly would have made for an easier time cycling. But her serious cycling efforts, which included several 100-mile centuries, typically took a back seat to her appearance, an issue familiar to pretty much any female athlete or simple observer of sports in history.
Ayesha McGowan, first inaugural Kittie Knox Award recipient from the League of American Bicyclists.
More so than her kick ass riding, or her fantastic bloomers, it was Knox’s anti-racism activities that garnered the most attention. In 1893, she was accepted as a member of the League of American Wheelmen, the precursor to what is now the League of American Bicyclists. Founded in 1880, the League helped to bring together bicycling groups from all over the country. Together, the cyclists had power, and the League’s organizing efforts, helped fuel the Good Roads Movement, eventually leading to the Federal Highway Administration and paved roads across the country.
Yet bicycle clubs were already often formed along lines of race, ethnicity, and class, and as they came together, tensions arose, in particular, racial tensions. Cycling did not exist in a cultural vacuum. According to Lorenz J. Finison, author of Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society, an influential white man named W.W. Watts from Louisville claimed that the League “could not recruit southern cyclers to the League without a color bar, that without this the League’s Good Roads campaign would be stymied.” Despite opposition from several northern delegations, the League passed this “color bar” in 1894, denying membership to anyone who wasn’t white.
But Knox already had her card in hand, having been issued when she joined the League in 1893. This set the stage for controversy at the annual meet, held in July of 1895, which she decided to attend despite the new rules.
In the week leading up to the annual meet, she earned a bit more of the spotlight when she won a cycling costume contest at Waltham Cycle Park. She beat out five other women with her own design, “a suit which consisted of a shirt waist, man’s short coat, and bloomers to the knee, with tight leggings from the knee down. The whole costume, including the hat, was of checked goods,” as reported by The Bearings.
Several days later, she joined other League members from Boston and traveled to the annual League meet at Asbury Park, New Jersey. “Everybody here seems to be a cyclist,” The New York Times wrote of the crowd that descended upon the seaside resort for the League’s national meet. “With the Boston delegation is also Miss Kittie Knox, a pretty young colored girl, who rides in the Riverside Cycle Club, Boston’s only colored cycling club,” the article continued. “She is the winner of the recent costume contest held at the Waltham track. This afternoon Miss Knox did a few fancy cuts in front of the clubhouse and was requested to desist. It is thought that this episode will result in temporarily opening the color line question. Some of the Asbury Park wheelmen officials, it is said, will protest against permitting Miss Knox to remain a member of the league.”
Newspaper reports from that time have conflicting reports as to what happened after that, whether she was denied entry or not. Regardless, the news of her resistance in merely showing up and claiming her space went national. Suddenly, here was a Black woman standing against racism, courageously claiming her rightful place among the nation’s cyclists.
It was eventually decided that the color bar law could not be applied retroactively, and because Knox had been a card-carrying member before the color bar had been instituted, she could continue to be accepted as a League member. Knox won that fight, and paved the way for more victories to come.
Knox died tragically only several years later, in 1900, at the age of 26 of kidney disease. Today, a monument has been erected in her honor, on a previously unmarked gravesite. Over a century since her newsworthy appearance at Asbury Park, the cycling industry continues to reconcile with issues of race. In 1999 the League finally publicly disavowed the color bar, and in 2020 an official Kittie Knox Award was created to “honor champions of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the bicycling movement.” The inaugural recipient was Ayesha McGowan, the nation’s first Black woman pro racer.
Until February 28, 2021, USA Cycling is hosting the Kittie Knox Challenge, a virtual cycling event to honor her miles ridden between Boston and Asbury Park.
Today, in her hometown of Cambridge, cyclists can take to the Kittie Knox Bike Path, a permanent honor to her memory and historical impact.