How Kittie Knox Changed Bicycling Forever

Let me tell you about my hero.

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.

“Old School” t-shirt design by Joe Biel

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 Kittie’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.

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.

Class War Escalation

In the 1890s, 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 monkees. But it was probably the former.

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.

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. Several weeks after Asbury Park, 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.”

1893 newspaper cartoon depicting racist views on the debate about excluding Black bicyclists from the LAW

The Battle for Public Space

In 1896, bicycling laws became ever more complex as police cracked down on scorching. Parks had recently been infused with tremendous amounts of funding and municipalities tried to exclude bicyclists from them. Even on public roads, cyclists were limited to staying under eight miles per hour and forced to carry a lantern at night. Bicycling on the roadway was sometimes outlawed and bicycling on the sidewalk was sometimes outlawed, leading to local confusion about where — if at all — bicyclists were allowed to ride. Landscape designers became the enemy of cyclists and a battle for use of public space raged, both factions becoming highly organized. In an effort to cast shade, bicyclists were branded as scofflaws by their critics in the press. The League began ineffectively demanding dedicated cycle paths, in an effort that is still ongoing 130 years later.

1893 newspaper cartoon mocking “scorching” and Black people

The Battle for Good Roads

The League eventually determined that Kittie Knox was definitively a member on the grounds that she had joined ten months before the color bar was passed. Racism is powerful but time is a constant. Even when the majority of membership opposed the color bar, they lacked the necessary two thirds voting majority to remove it. The color bar had always been the product of an organized and dedicated minority.

All but Forgotten

Kittie 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. Kittie was one of many women chosen for her attractiveness as well as ability to sing and dance.

When bicycling became a mainstream social activity, newspapers began running racist cartoons mocking Black cyclists
The 1970s Schwinn mainstreamed bicycling again, but not nearly to 1890s levels
vehicular cycling
separated infrastructure

Then to Now

Kittie 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 around today.

Malcolm X portrait by Josh MacPhee

self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker formed by punk rock, joebiel.net

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