Katherine T. “Kittie” Knox

Knox, a seamstress born in 1874 to a free black father and a white mother, became a prominent and accomplished cyclist by the 1890s in Boston.

During the late 19th century, Katherine T. “Kittie” Knox was a transportation pioneer who bravely confronted the era’s gender and racial barriers. Knox was born in 1874.

“Knox’s mother, Katherine Towle, was a white woman from the rural southern Maine town of East Parsonfield who had worked as a “mill-girl” in Biddeford, while her father, John Knox, a tailor, was a black man from Philadelphia.

The family lived on the border of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge. In the 1880s, Kittie Knox and her brother, Ernest Knox, moved with their mother to Irving Street in Boston, located on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, where a large population of African Americans lived.” [2]

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.

Her perseverance even caught the attention of “Far-off newspapers such as the San Francisco Call described the uproar: When Miss Knox, whose appearance and dress had been objects of admiration all day, walked into the committee-room at the local clubhouse and presented her League card for a credential badge the gentleman in charge refused to recognize the card, and the young woman withdrew very quietly. Ninety-nine out of every hundred members interviewed express the heartiest sympathy for her and condemnation of the hasty action of the badge committee.” bikeleague.org

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. Courtesy Transportationhistory.org

Knox completed multiple 100-mile rides and placed 12th out of 50 male and female cyclists in a major national race, “far ahead of her lighter-hued sisters,” one magazine reported.

A Formerly Unmarked Grave

But in 1900, at age 26, Knox died at Massachusetts General Hospital of kidney disease. She was buried in a grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery that was unmarked until Sunday, when three generations of her relatives attended a ceremony dedicating a new headstone.

Knox had seemed doomed to obscurity. But six years ago, author Lorenz Finison stumbled across her name while researching a forthcoming book on Boston’s cycling history. Passing references to Knox in cycling books prompted Finison to search local newspaper archives for more information.

READ THE FULL STORY IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Ceremony honors cyclist who broke barriers

I’m proud that there’s a story about such a strong woman in my own family,” she said. “Despite institutional barriers, she pursued something that she enjoyed doing, that made her heart beat. It’s inspiring.