Black History Moments
During the late 19th century, Katherine T. “Kittie” Knox was a transportation pioneer who bravely confronted the era’s gender and racial barriers. Knox, who was born in 1874 to a white mother and African American father, earned a living as a seamstress but found her passion in bicycling.
Knox became a member of the Riverside Cycling Club, one of the first groups of its kind for African Africans, in her hometown of Boston. She established herself as an accomplished bicyclist, participating in a number of races and often finishing ahead of many of her male competitors. Knox’s reputation went well beyond her native Massachusetts. An 1893 article in the Indiana based African American newspaper Indianapolis Freemen, for example, reported on her “graceful” cycling during an event on Martha’s Vineyard. It was during the same year that Knox, very much involved and invested in the bicycling craze of the time, joined the overwhelmingly male League of American Wheelmen (LAW).
Knox also gained attention in other unconventional ways while riding a bicycle. Among other things, she insisted on using a bicycle marketed for men only. In addition, she pedaled around wearing baggy trousers of her own design instead of the long skirts that women were expected to wear for this means of transportation.
In 1894, a key threat to Knox’s standing in the bicycling community took place when LAW barred African Americans from belonging to the organization. Knox, rather than passively accepting this newly imposed restriction; decided to challenge it head-on at LAW’s 1895 annual meeting in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Knox showed up at the event and, after being told to leave, presented certification confirming that she had joined LAW prior to the implementation of the whites-only policy.
While a number of attendees came to Knox’s defense, many others expressed strong objections to her presence, and ultimately she was expelled from the meeting.
While unable to change LAW’s discriminatory treatment against her and other African American bicyclists, Knox at least was able to generate a public debate over the segregationist policy. She died of kidney disease in 1900, leaving a substantial legacy as not just a skillful bicyclist but also someone who shed needed light on the obstacles facing African Americans and women.