Kittie knox
Women in Cycling

Women's History Month: Kittie Knox

By: Victoria Shead  March 01, 2021

Kittie Knox is the reason that bicycling is more than just another leisure sport for the wealthy.

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. A trailblazing pioneer that would go down in HERstory is Miss Katherine Towle Knox. Katherine, more commonly referred to as Kittie, was born on October 7, 1874, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. When Kittie was just around seven years old, her father passed away from an unknown cause. In the wake of her father’s death, Kittie, her mother, and her older brother Ernest moved to the West End of Boston where she began to show interest in cycling.

After saving enough money from her job as a seamstress to buy a bicycle, Kittie became well-known in her neighborhood for her various outings. In 1893, Kittie joined the Riverside Cycling Club which was the first black cycling group, also in 1893, Kittie was accepted as a member of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W). The book Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 by historian Lorenz J. Finison accounts for these moments in Knox’s life; according to Finison, Knox was among a "small coterie of black women cyclists in the early part of Boston's [bicycling] craze.". She would place 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. Kittie made cycling appear fun rather than a complicated social activity for the wealthy with many rules. Despite the popularity of this leisure activity, cycling was socially complicated. Even in Boston, cyclists had to negotiate their social hubs, making their gender, religion, ethnicity, and class divisions negotiation roadblocks in finding accepting cycling clubs. A big roadblock for Kittie (that would eventually help her to make her mark in history)was that in 1894 the L.A.W. changed its constitution to include the word “white,” creating a “color bar” for the organization. This caused many members to question the legitimacy of Kittie’s membership.

Even though her L.A.W membership was controversial, Kittie was still a popular candidate in competitions that featured female L.A.W. members sporting their best looks. On July 4th, 1895, Kittie competed in a costume contest at the Waltham Cycle Park, wearing a gray knickerbocker suit. Finison writes in his book, "That Kittie won with such a uniform was quite astounding, and a testament to her seamstress skills, given the animus in some quarters against women of the time wearing anything but skirts – and long skirts at that.". Also, in July of 1895, Kittie entered the annual meet at Asbury Park. It was reported that she was denied entry and was not recognized as a member of the L.A.W., despite being a card-carrying member. Her bold and courageous stand created an uproar and caught the attention of several major news outlets.

“The New York Times reported: “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 cycle club.” The Times got quickly to the heart of the conflict: “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… [and] the local ‘kickers’ say they will have a reckoning with the League Secretary, Abbot Bassett, upon his arrival.”

After the Asbury Park meetup, Kittie 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. In August of 1895, the Partridge White Ribbon Open Century was almost canceled by a thunderstorm. Nonetheless, many riders, including Kittie, joyfully completed the 100-mile ride, albeit covered in mud. Kittie was the only woman to finish. Even after success within the cycling community, Knox again was on the receiving end of discrimination. Knox was refused participation in another event despite the event beginning in Boston. The Boston Wheelmen ran the event, a new club formed in her hometown that had decided not to allow any Black participants.

Eventually, the issue of the “color bar” boiled over in the L.A.W. A battle ensued between the members who believed that the L.A.W.’s “white only” membership policy be upheld and those who felt segregation was wrong. In a July 1895 issue of L.A.W. Bulletin & Good Roads, L.A.W. stated that “Miss Katie [sic] Knox joined the League April 21, 1893. The word ‘white’ was put into the [L.A.W.] constitution, Feb. 20, 1894. Such laws are not and cannot be retroactive. We don’t know who it was that competed in the races, and we know of no law that would keep a negro out of an open race, be he League member or not”. After this statement was released, Kittie’s membership was entirely accepted, making her the first-ever African American accepted by the League of American Wheelmen. However, the color bar would remain in effect within the League until it was publicly repudiated in 1999.

Kittie Knox was a true cycling pioneer. Her story of courage in the face of racial tension helped desegregate the world of cycling and offered a hopeful vision for a future that.