The Legacy of Cyclist Kittie Knox

kittie knox

Photo courtesy of The Referee & Cycle Trade Journal, v. 15 May-Oct. 1895 via the Smithsonian Archives

Between the busy streets of Broadway and Binney in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lies a tree-lined path nestled aside red-brick buildings of Harvard University. A sign at the Broadway Street entrance dedicates the paved walkway to Kittie Knox, “…an African American bicyclist and activist who challenged race and gender barriers in cycling in the 1890s.” A 10-minute bike ride over the Longfellow Bridge leads to a Starbucks at the corner of Cambridge and Irving Street in Boston. According to Lorenz Finison, author of Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1990, this is where Kittie lived with her older brother and mother in the late 1880s and where she did more than merely turn heads by riding her bicycle.

The end of the 19th century saw a shift from the high-wheel bicycle (think: dauntingly precarious riding position with an enormous front wheel and the propensity to fly over the handlebars) to the “safety bicycle,” which, with equal-sized wheels, is more akin to the modern-day bike. As these models carried less risk of the rider being pitched overboard and better accommodated long skirts, women entered the “bicycle boom” of Boston, joining cycling clubs and avidly participating in the sport. “Bicycles extended women’s mobility outside the home,” Hannah Ostroff wrote for the Smithsonian. “A woman didn’t need a horse to come and go as she pleased, whether to work outside the home or participate in social causes. Those who had been confined by Victorian standards for behavior and attire could break conventions and get out of the house.”

Katherine Towle Knox, known as Kittie, was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, in 1874 to her white mother, Katherine Towle, and African American father, John H. Knox. As a youngster, Kittie showed interest in cycling and eventually saved enough money as a seamstress to buy a bicycle. She took to the unpaved, congested streets of Boston and Cambridge and joined the first black cycling group, the Riverside Cycle Club, in 1893. That same year, she became the first African American accepted into the League of American Wheelman (L.A.W.) — one of the largest membership organizations of cyclists in the United States.

Kittie placed in the top 20 percent of every competition she entered (many were at least 100 miles long), sporting home-sewn knickerbockers in place of traditional long skirts worn by women cyclists. The media, including the Boston Globe, New York Times, Boston Herald, and Wheelwoman, the primary cycling magazine for American women, took notice of Kittie’s cycling exploits. “As a young biracial woman, Kittie straddled two worlds,” Finison writes in Boston’s Cycling Craze. “She would also experience the challenge of navigating an overwhelmingly male-dominated sport where women cyclists were constantly judged for their dress and behavior on the road.”

Mary Hopkins, the publisher of Wheelwoman magazine, proved to be one of Kittie’s biggest critics. “If there is one thing I hate… it is a masculine woman,” she told the New York Times. “It has made my heart sore to see the women who have been putting on knickerbockers, riding the diamond-framed wheel and racing and scorching with the men. It has made wheeling just another way for women to make a fool of herself, bringing cycling into disrepute, and making herself the laughingstock of the people. If a woman wants to dress like a Turk, she should put on the veil as well, so that no one will know who she is.”

In 1894, the L.A.W. passed a ban on black membership. Although she was a card-carrying member of the L.A.W., Kittie was denied entry at an annual cycling meet in Asbury Park in July 1895. The incident was reported in The Referee and Cycle Trade Journal: “When she made application at League headquarters for the tickets entitling her to the various privileges accorded League members, she was refused, although she presented her league ticket.” Despite this, she “joined in several of the runs, and has been doing the best that she could to enjoy herself.” A July 1895 issue of L.A.W. Bulletin & Good Roads stated that the ban could not be retroactive; Kittie was accepted as a full member and was the first African American to be welcomed by the league. The color bar wasn’t officially repealed until 1999.

The issues of race and gender were thrust into the national spotlight, and while Kittie had hardly been received with open arms, she had achieved, with her courage and stylish outfits, an unprecedented level of celebrity. – Lorenz Finison, Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1990

In 1900, five years after the L.A.W. Bulletin & Good Roads confirmed Kittie’s membership, she died from complications of kidney disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. She was 26 years old. A monument was placed on her previously unmarked grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her legacy lives on in Finison’s book, in the bike path at Broadway and Binney, and The League of American Bicyclists’ Katherine T. “Kittie” Knox Award, which recognizes “champions of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the bicycling movement.” The inaugural 2020 award went to Ayesha McGowan, the US’s first black female pro cyclist.

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Ashley Giordano completed a 48,800-kilometer overland journey from Canada to Argentina with her husband, Richard, in their well-loved but antiquated Toyota pickup. On the zig-zag route south, she hiked craggy peaks in the Andes, discovered diverse cultures in 15 different countries, and filled her tummy with spicy ceviche, Baja fish tacos, and Argentinian Malbec. You can usually find Ashley buried in a pile of travel books, poring over maps, or researching wild medicinal plants. Ashley is a co-founder of Women Overlanding the World and crew member of Expedition Overland. You’ll find this Canadian-born couple exploring a different continent in 2021, and sharing their trip every step of the way at Desk to Glory.