In the era of Jim Crow and penny-farthings, Katherine “Kittie” Towle Knox wanted to live life on her own terms.
When her father died, 7-year-old Kittie, her mother, and her brother moved to an impoverished area in the west end of Boston. As a teenager, Kittie worked as a seamstress while her brother worked as a steamfitter so their family could survive.
Interested in cycling at an early age, Kittie saved her seamstress money for months until she could afford to buy her own bicycle. In the late 1800s, new steerable front wheels and drive chains made bikes safer and easier to ride. This meant more freedom for more people, especially women.
At the time, the only places women were allowed to participate in cycling were century rides. The more Kittie rode, the more well-known she became for her talent.
Knickerbockers, Looks, and Skill
Instead of focusing on her 100-mile cycling efforts and top 20% finishes, journalists began scrutinizing Kittie’s unique style and riding technique. Eventually, they began describing her as a “beautiful and buxom black bloomerite.”
As bike prices dropped, average working-class citizens were suddenly able to purchase their own bicycles. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop people from continuing to uphold both sexist and racist standards. For women, this meant being required to wear long, restrictive, and expensive skirts—on the bike. For women, danger didn’t matter. Fashion did.
In an attempt to find more functional cycling apparel, more and more women opted to wear shorter skirts while riding. Not Kittie. Breaking all gender norms, Kittie sewed her own cycling knickerbockers because she wanted something efficient, not something bound to get stuck in the chain.
Kittie’s knickerbockers were just like boys’ baggy-kneed trousers that tied below the knee and folded back into long stockings. There was a pronounced flair in the thighs for more freedom of movement.
Because women weren’t allowed to race their bikes under the League of American Wheelmen, they entered costume contests instead. Kittie showed up to the July 4, 1895 Waltham Cycle Park meet and won outright—with her own sewing and design. The Bearings described her costume as “a suit which consisted of a shirtwaist, man’s short coat, and bloomers to the knee, with tight leggings from the knee down. The whole costume, including the hat, was of checked goods.”
“Checked goods or not,” Kittie wore knickerbockers because skirts were simply not practical. If they were, men would have opted to wear those rather than their own bloomers.
The League and The Color Bar
In 1880, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was formed to unify American cycling clubs and give cyclists a more powerful voice in their advocacy efforts. The League collected dues from all its members and issued cards so (male) cyclists could race in their national events.
As racists introduced Jim Crow laws and lynchings were hitting an all-time high throughout the South in 1893, Kittie joined LAW intending to make a difference.
William Walker Watts, an attorney and former Confederate Colonel, started a campaign to both remove and prevent any Black person from joining LAW. He was convinced that Black members stopped white people from joining the organization.
Watts needed to secure a two-thirds majority vote in order to change the organization’s bylaws. He failed twice. Eventually, the group became so divided that by the second vote there were clubs disassociating from LAW entirely. By 1894, Watts finally got the numbers he was desperate for. The League then changed their bylaws to say, “None but white persons can become members of the League.”
As “color bars” swept through cycling clubs across Mississippi, clubs were inspired to host century rides “without a color line.” The Century Road Club of America hosted a century ride welcoming Black athletes. Kittie boldly signed up and rode the century from Boston to Providence despite the thunderstorm that ripped through town. She was the only woman to finish in the second division, and was reportedly “muddy but not at all played out.”
More Than a Few Fancy Cuts at Asbury Park
When Kittie turned 21 years old, she rode in a parade of 30 Boston cyclists for The League’s whites-only annual meet in Asbury Park, New Jersey. She rode up to the clubhouse and performed tricks until volunteers forced her to stop. When Kittie entered the clubhouse, she flashed her League membership card for her racing badge. They refused to recognize her card because of the “color bar.”
Depending on which newspaper you read, she either “withdrew very quietly” or “walked defiantly out” of the clubhouse. But then, “… a good angel appeared in the person of Mr. Robinson of the Press Cycling Club,” the Boston Herald reported, “who secured for her the desired badge.” So despite the “color bar,” Kittie raced.
After the Asbury Park meet, Kittie visited the Philadelphia Meteors, a Black Ethiopian cycling club. They took her to the Tioga races and watched fireworks. Kittie was there to race bikes, sure, but she also was there to make friends and have fun.
Undeterred by Asbury Park’s segregation, Kittie attended the League’s ball dressed in a pink top, black skirt, and a large leghorn hat. Not only was she the only Black woman at a “white party,” but she was also the first one to get on the dance floor. Thus, a battle between members ensued—those who believed in upholding “white only” membership and those who thought it was racist and wrong.
In a July 1895 issue of LAW’s Bulletin & Good Roads, LAW said because Kittie joined on April 21, 1893, and they added “white” to their constitution on February 20, 1894, the laws couldn’t be retroactive.
Finally, if not begrudgingly, LAW accepted Kittie as a member—making her the first African American to be part of the League of American Wheelmen.
Riding Despite Racism and Sexism of the Era
Throughout the cycling world, Kittie Knox consistently made headlines. Whether it was the New York Times, San Francisco Call, Boston Herald, The Referee, Cycle Trade Journal, The Morning Express, Indianapolis Freeman, or the Bulletin, covering her “graceful” riding or gender-bending attire, Kittie rebelled against the status quo.
She inspired practical women’s cycling apparel, incited desegregation within cycling clubs, and made cycling something fun for everyone.
Kittie was one reason bikes became a tool of liberation for women. Taking her own path offended everyone, from the sexists gripping their bicycle handles to the racists clutching their pearls. But according to Kittle, history was never made by conforming—and she was a rebel.
Looking for more inspiring stories of female trailblazers? Read the stories of women who have helped pave the way to women’s sports equality - Eileen Gray, Kathrine Switzer, and Billie Jean King.
Then, get active with Zwift’s women's community at www.zwift.com/women.
- Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 by historian Lorenz J. Finison