Kittie Knox

In pursuit of research on Harlem in the 1890s, I was surprised to discover how popular bicycling was then, which really should not have been such a stunning revelation. Anyway, I discovered a group called the Harlem Wheelmen and that they had annual races whose starting point was in Marcus Garvey Park, then called by its original name, Mt. Morris Park. Then I learned that Harlem was by no means unique in bicycle racing. In fact, one major event occurred in Boston, and there was even by 1893 an organization called the League of American Wheelmen.

This league, like most leagues of this day, was for whites only. But that barrier was not high or wide enough to prevent Kittie Knox from gaining admission, something she was able to do because she was bi-racial. Examining a picture of her, it’s hard to believe she could fool anybody about her race—her complexion was clearly of a darker hue. And bear in mind there were very few women of any color in the League. It wasn’t long before her speed and her appealing apparel put her in the spotlight, and Knox was on her way to celebrity and championships.

Knox was born on Oct. 7, 1874, in Cambridgeport, Mass. Her mother was white and her father was a Black tailor, and it was possibly from him that she later became a talented seamstress, often making her own eye-catching garments. After the death of her father when she was 7, the family moved to the West End of Boston to a section of town where poor Blacks lived cheek-to-jowl with immigrants. Very little is known about her educational development, if any at all. When she came of age, she found work as a seamstress, while her brother, Ernest, labored as a steamfitter.

When she wasn’t busy with her needles and thread, Knox began showing an interest in cycling. Soon, she had earned enough money to buy her first bicycle. People often stared in wonder at the young Black girl speeding through town, where only the quickest eyes could behold her fabulous riding attire. Her enthusiasm for biking expanded when she became a member of the Riverside Cycle Club. It was often speculated about whether she truly was a card-carrying member of the club since women were not allowed to participate in the sport.

Not only was she an active participant in the sport, but she was also soon riding off with the top prizes and it was hard not to notice her outfits as she embraced the trophies. A greater pleasure arrived when she was allowed to be a member of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.) in 1893, a first-ever for an African American. It was widely debated whether Knox was an actual member because of the color bar that restricted African Americans from becoming members. Obviously, she caused a lot of controversy, both in terms of race, ability, and certainly her fashionable, stylish wardrobe. Two years later, in 1895, she won her first major race in Waltham, Mass.

Apparently because of her standout performances, her gender and color—to say nothing of how she dressed—stories about her in the press tended to focus on what she wore, though the other racers received no comment about their style and presentation. According to one account, she was described as a “comely colored maiden,” a “murky goddess of Beanville,” or more stereotypically “a beautiful and buxom Black bloomerette.” How all of this affected her is not known, and since she had received so much of it an immunity to them may have staved off the brunt of the negative characterizations.

Whatever the case, Knox continued to compete and to take home the prizes for her triumphs with no apparent change in how she dressed and comported herself. Of course, there were times when her race impeded her entry, and one incident in Asbury Park is often recounted by writers. She was singled out and denied service at restaurants and hotels in New Jersey.

A more in-depth account of her achievements can be found in the National Museum of African American History and Culture Library. She is also featured in several cycling journals at the Smithsonian. In lieu of more material about her, we offer two photos that give some idea of her complexion and the way she often dressed—note the knickerbockers. According to Wikipedia, she died in 1900 from kidney disease and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in a public lot. A headstone was erected for her by family members on September 29, 2013.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this story, it was fascinating. I am a fan of cycling and always amazed at our people’s determination, talent and innovation in spite of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

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