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Pedal On, Kittie Knox

Subscriber Post by A J Zelada on February 7th, 2020 at 1:49 pm

Kittie Knox is surfacing again with welcome arms.

Knox is a cyclist from Boston who lived in the late 1800s and died early at age 26. There are few facts and one might think she is a token to be bandied about. But this is not true. And thanks to Lorenz Finison who published The Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1890, we receive greater insights into who she was. Her life and treatment by other cyclists forces us to ponder, have we changed?

The Racial Divide feels ever great everywhere. Having our America build United States-Mexico border walls heightens the Berlin Wall of Eastern Germany ethic of xenophobia. In our town, we have a huge melting pot of 40 plus languages in the Gresham-Rockwood area, the large disparity of those who are insured vs. no insurance, the homeless sprawl, the face of younger people without prospects to equal equity comforts of their parents; the largest economic class disparity since 1929…the list goes on for those who are subject of disparities in addition to more often mentioned racial disparity.

Kittie Knox stands out in Finison’s history book for fleshing out our culture surrounding a solid good woman who loved cycling, who pushed the feminine dress codes, and who had a thick skin to withstand the hate of racism within cycling. He is the opposite of a sculptor, who removes material to leave art. This author is able to reveal Kittie by the frame of historical events.

Kittie grew up in Boston’s West End neighborhood which was composed of poor blacks, poor Yankee whites, 2nd generation Irish, southern Italians and Eastern European Jewish. These developed into tenements or micro segregated buildings. Finison has uncovered that her corner building on Cambridge St. contained a black barber, Russian-Jewish shoemaker, a Black Canadian hairdresser and an Irish bar. Kittie grew up ‘thoroughly multiracial and multicultural.’ Another aspect of Kittie’s observed experiences was the 1895 protests by Boston African Americans community to demand more police protection from the disorder of the many saloons and betting operations.

Cycling’s boom context was during an epic economic depression. Women’s salaries (e.g. laundry, garment workers) and Men’s labor incomes were $3-5 dollars and $9-12 dollars per week respectively. New bikes were $50 bucks, used were $5. Kittie was a seamstress following her father’s tailoring skills. The streets of Kitties early cycling days were narrow, jammed squares of burlesques, taverns, tattoo parlors, & theaters. As interpreted by Finison, this ‘fueled’ cyclists to escape to the suburbs/countryside from ‘the dirty, smelly, crowded’ cityscapes.

It is important to remember Boston’s history of earlier pre-civil-war anti-slavery sentiments; it is important to know that in 1877 38% of all Black marriages were to whites…Finison says this remains the highest recorded rates of inter-racial marriages. Kittie was bi-racial. Newspaper reports described her as ‘light skinned mulatto,’ ‘comely colored maiden,’ and a ‘beautiful and buxom black bloomerite.’ The South had a ‘one drop rule, which meant a drop of Black blood, meant you were classified as Black, colored or mulatto.

Kittie is first mentioned to be a member of the Riverside Cycle Club (near the Charles River) by an Indianapolis Black newspaper, the Freemen. This club was started in 1893 by Cambridgeport cyclists in Boston with whom Kittie associated. Just for perspective, the first English bicycle in America was brought in by a Massachusetts’s resident in 1876. The mid 1880s featured the safety tricycles ridden by more women in skirts. Riverside CC paraded frequently in Boston but collided with southern cyclists’ color ban.

In the early 1890s, the bikes glued communities: people raced, toured, created bicycle music ( I want to find out more about this!), formed club houses, put on balls and cotillions, minstrel shows (!), in winter competed at billiards, bowling and danced. Kittie’s Riverside Cycle group planned a trip to the Newtons (MA), West Medford and nearby Mystic River. Their visits were to ‘small African American enclaves.’ Country touring often had lunch as a goal and hotels had coffee shops. Between 1893-1895, Massachusetts political groups attempted to strengthen access to public accommodations; this in turn guaranteed Riverside Cyclist rights on their country rides (Finison paraphrase). Again for perspective, Massachusetts had a 1865 statute prohibiting segregation at any inn, amusement park, ‘public carrier or public meeting.’ But private roller rinks began to deny Blacks access towards 1895.

The history of the League of American Wheelmen’s (LAW) ban on Black membership began in 1894. Lynching reached a record high in 1892 (down south). A cyclist named Wilson first submitted limits of colored memberships to LAW in 1891. It failed. One member issued the declaration that each state had a right to set their own membership exclusion requirements. The color ban amendment failed again in 1892. The Louisiana club of 180 dwindled to 9 people. In 1893, the Times-Picayune reported that the ‘Wheelmen of the north have seen their mistake in allowing the Negro to be enrolled…’ as evidence that color bans were needed to prevent the white exodus. In Feb 1894, the national LAW by a vote of 127 to 54 stated ‘none but white persons can become members of the League.’ Massachusetts delegation voted solidly against the resolution.

The Riverside cyclists protested; the Illinois LAW delegation was prepared to strike down the color ban at the national convention in 1895. The Boston Herald reported that NYC & Philadelphia joined Boston in protesting the colored ban. A ‘compromise’ amendment prohibiting the color ban was withdrawn to appease the southern delegate: this quid pro quo was, the next convention would be held in Boston and not New Jersey, if the northerners dropped their objection to the Negro exclusion. Boston lost to Asbury Park (NJ) anyway. There were threats that the LAW would lose memberships if Negros were allowed memberships. Abbot Bassett, the LAW secretary, reported the membership declined by over 10,000 during 1894 and 1895 because the color ban continued.

Meanwhile in Kittie’s town, Boston, 1895 was a banner year for cyclists. The Boston Herald reported all sorts of cyclists on all sorts of machines traveled on Mecca Ave, ‘almost as smooth as a billiard table.’ Commonwealth Ave became the speed strip to show off cycling thigh power. Papers began to mention that the long skirts of young women on tricycles were being retired. They were often called bloomer girls. In July 1895, Kittie created a July 4th Knickerbocker suit and took first prize. Charles Percival of Boston LAW told a NYTimes reporter: ‘She got first prize because she won it, her outfit being superior to her competitors.’ It was reported that a number of people hissed …but the reporter felt that was because she was a colored girl although the runner up ‘congratulated her successful rival in a most womanly fashion.’

The Bostonian cyclists including Kittie arrived at the Asbury Park LAW convention. She was noted by the NYTimes to have done some fancy ‘cuts’ (of cycling) and then requested to stop. The reporter said this would push the question of the color ban. The San Francisco Call described: ‘When Miss Knox, whose appearance and dress had been objects of admiration all day, walked into the committee –room at the local club-house and presented her league card for a credential badge the gentleman refuse(d) to recognize the card, and the young woman withdrew very quietly.’ Headlines from San Francisco, Boston, Canada stated: Wheelman are Indignant at the Action of Committee, Color Line Drawn, Action of Credential Committee Generally Condemned, and Color Line Again. NYTimes reporter said 99 of 100 ‘expressed the heartiest sympathy for her and condemnation of…the badge committee…’

Kentucky cycling group was outraged at a ‘saddle colored damsel from Boston…in bloomers and on a man’s bike too.’ LAW Vice President George Perkins (Cambridge attorney) and Abbott (LAW secretary) stood by reinforcing she was ‘entitled to a holder of the League membership card.’ The Asbury Park Journal reported, ‘Miss Knox had no trouble at all in passing muster and the home committee never raised questions as to her standing. Her passports {LAW meet identification] were promptly issued.
The Buffalo Morning Express stated: ‘Miss Katie Knox, negress, the young woman rider from Boston, who had been a member of the LAW for six years, denies the sensational reports…’ The Jersey Journal later reported ‘she is a remarkably agile and expert rider. She wears bloomers.’

The Boston Globe wrote of a race: ‘leaders tried to lose her during an eighteen mile run but she was game, and when the big crowd entered the town on the return trip she was up with the leaders, sailing with the best of them…when she appears in the street she receives more attention than a half dozen star racing men’. More Knox stories the following year mention that waiters, hotels, cafes refused her food and accommodations because she was colored. Perkins of the LAW was quoted saying that the LAW will defend her in a court of law. The Boston Herald expressed sarcasm at Knox’s treatment.

Kittie Knox was reported by the Wheel and Cycling Trade Review to behaving ‘becomingly’ and ‘affected an unconcern which seemed strained. A number of ladies present left but Miss Knox remained and participated in dancing with white men as her partners; in fact she seldom lacked white escorts. The Boston Herald echoed a similar poise: ‘Among the visiting bicyclers is a bright young mulatto girl. From Boston, and the many snubs which have been placed upon her by many of the women culminated last night in dozens of them leaving the ball at the Auditorium, because she was not only there, but the first upon the floor in the walk, which took the place of the grand march.’

And again, the LAW published a letter questioning why a Negro could not only have competed [in a] trial heat and ‘be a member of the LAW, as it appears Miss Knox of Boston is?’ The associate editor replied Knox was a member as early as 1893, the color ban began in 1894, and there could not be retroactive action.
Historical reports continue stating that she is the first single woman on a bike to complete a century ride (two women pacers used a tandem!). And this was done in response to a new Boston club refusing entry forms to Blacks. But the club members over ruled the captain.

Riverside Cycling Club declined in 1896 as track racing was gaining in newspaper attention. Several trends were occurring toward the short amount of time left in Kittie’s life. Exclusion rules popped up: ‘Flat tax was proposed for taking bikes on trains, bikes required lanterns at night, restricted bike speeds were at 8 mph and prohibition of cycles on parkways and city parks were proposed but unenforced. ‘Cyclists fought against exclusions’ and fought proposals to create new bicycle sidepaths from little used bridle paths. Even over several years in the late 1890s Frederick Olmsted (created Central Park, NYC and his sons created Forest Park and Peninsula Park in Portland, OR) believed parks are a ‘preserve of scenery…[is] no place … [for] the bicycler scorching track.’ Scorcher was a derogatory term for a low class speeding cyclist. Much to Olmstead’s irritation, the Fens and the Riverway parks in Boston ‘use of the park’ recorded 1479 carriages, 1283 bicycles, and 86 saddle horses between 1 to 7 pm on Oct 28, 1894.

One more racist event surfaced in newspapers in 1896. A few LAW clubs had fought the exclusion of the color ban during the 94-95 years. Diversity and inclusion lost as the century turned into the 1900s. Across the country more clubs began discriminating against African Americans. Boston Councilman Charles Hall stood by inclusion of Blacks calling all riders ‘thoroughly American.’ Hall brought a Writ against William Handy after Kittie had done a century ride with 3 other women. Captain Handy of the Boston Wheelman had retracted invitations to Knox and others. Hall filed a civil suit for $300.00 against Handy and others ‘upon the grounds that they were aiders and abettors in color discrimination.’ Another Boston club tried to reinforce keeping the color ban. Kittie pedaled on. She ‘continued to be accepted—she did so as an exceptional individual.’ And the case against Handy was dismissed with Hall having to pay court costs of $8.97. And as we near the end of this tale, Handy’s fortunes declined after the writ was dismissed. He died of ‘paralysis of the insane (suspect late stage syphilis). And he is buried not far from Kittie Knox’s previously unmarked grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery. At a minimum, the dead in the cemetery formed a multiracial neighborhood of bones.

Kittie Knox died in 1900 of kidney failure at the age of 26. Her referenced life sticks in my mind. The hints from such tidbits but not found in diaries or more recorded written words by her hand and mind makes we want to flesh out this person. We know so much about her because of how others treated her. There was such a swirl of events in our bicycle history involving her epicenter position; I find it sad to be missing that first-hand knowledge. I still want a more robust role model. This detais surrounding the Knox’s story is a great poured cast of the missing statue. We know the artwork molded by the existing reportage history not the biography/art piece. But maybe we need that dream of someone so graceful, so powerful, and so enabled to cycle ahead of the parade of racists. We need that hope of following her strengths. She pedals on.

— Jerry Zelada

Note: This article has special thanks to Carolyn Szczepanski for introducing me to Kittie Knox through her work at the League of American Bicycles in 2013. Lorenz Finison should be considered a co-author. His detailed and diligent detective work and fastidious weaving of facts brings Kittie Knox to us. Most Knox articles including this one are heavily dependent on his wonderful work. What a revelation.

Related links:

Kittie Knox bike path on Ames Street in Cambridge, MA
African American Heritage Trail
Hard Knox bike shop
Boston Globe story from 2013

Books
Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society, by Lorenz J. Finison (2014, University of Massachusetts Press)

How Kittie Knox Changed Bicycling Forever, by Joe Biel (2019, Medium/Microcosm Publishing)

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9watts
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I learned a lot. Thanks!

Alan 1.0
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Me too, and thank you for commenting, 9watts, otherwise I probably would have missed it.

Jonathan, maybe I’m overlooking something, but the only link I see from the homepage to the “Subscriber Posts” section is in the “Special Sections” list – https://bikeportland.org/subscriber-posts – and that URL gets a 404 (it’s missing the /cats/ directory). Please link ../cats/subscriber-posts!

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
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Sorry about that messed up link. It is fixed now. And yes, that’s currently the only link to Subscriber Posts. Still working on how best to feature these. I do share them on Twitter and Facebook as well. We’re actually testing a Forums tool that we hope to migrate the subscriber posts to.

9watts
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I (only) saw it because I am subscribed to receive a daily digest of the posts from the prior 24 hours and this story was included. But also nice to have someone comment favorably on my having posted a comment; more often than not it is the opposite 😉