By Dan Adams | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT SEPTEMBER 30, 2013
In the late 1800s, when Boston emerged as the epicenter of a national bicycling craze, women initially were relegated to tricycles. But as they began switching to the kind of two-wheeled bikes men rode, publications offered stern advice on how a lady ought to dress while cycling.
In an 1894 New York Times story headlined, “Garb of Man Makes a Fool of a Woman She Declares and She is Waging a War Against It,” Mary Sargent Hopkins said: “Now, if there is one thing I hate, it is a masculine woman. It has made my heart sore to see the women who have been putting on knickerbockers . . . racing and scorching with the men.”
So it is no surprise that Hopkins, a Boston resident who published the women’s bicycling magazine The Wheelwoman, found little to like about 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. But her mixed racial heritage raised eyebrows, as did her insistence on riding a man’s bike and wearing pantaloons of her own design instead of the long, heavy skirts prescribed by Hopkins and her ilk.
And if that weren’t enough, she excelled at the sport: 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.
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.
“I found an article saying she won a cycling costume contest in Waltham,” said Finison, a teacher at the Boston University School of Public Health and a cofounder of Cycling Through History, which develops bike routes between African-American heritage sites. “I thought, that’s really amazing. Why, given the racial climate of the time, would she have won a contest out there? I thought I should look into it more.”
In 2009, Finison tracked down Nan Towle-Millet, a 71-year-old Acton resident whose great-aunt was Knox’s mother.
That meeting eventually led to Sunday’s ceremony.
After Finison’s call, Towle-Millet scoured her family’s documents and photo albums for clues, eventually locating a tintype image of Knox.
Towle-Millet’s granddaughter, Elsa Millett, who majored in gender studies while setting running records at Bowdoin College, said Knox’s defiance of the era’s racism took courage.
“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.”
Finison eventually unearthed a trove of stories about Knox. While many articles were preoccupied with her race and appearance — “a beautiful and buxom black bloomerite” was one reference in Referee Magazine — he learned that Knox had been a member of Boston’s only black cycling group, the Riverside Cycle Club, before joining the Boston-based National League of American Wheelman in 1893.
Knox soon found herself at the epicenter of a fight over whether blacks could join the league, he said. After a Southern faction of league leaders successfully politicked in 1894 to make the group for whites only, Knox’s appearance at the league’s 1895 national meet in Asbury Park, N.J., caused an uproar. Trouble began upon her arrival, when, rather than appease critics, “Miss Knox did a few fancy cuts in front of the clubhouse and was requested to desist,” The New York Times reported.
Then, when Knox went to register for the meet and presented her membership card, the credentials were rejected.
“[Knox’s] entrance today, in the parlor of the Asbury Park wheelmen, caused wild consternation among the ladies gathered there,” wrote a San Francisco paper, according to Finison’s manuscript. “She was politely told that she was in the wrong house. To their utter surprise she produced a league membership card and declared that no exception had ever been taken to her color by wheelmen or wheelwomen. After asserting herself to that extent, Miss Knox walked defiantly out with her wheel.”
Even after members of the Massachusetts delegation intervened to ensure her participation, successfully arguing she had been admitted before the color bar, Finison writes that anger persisted: A group of white women cyclists threatened to quit in protest; dozens walked out of a League dance when Knox partnered with a white man; a Southern paper slammed League leaders for permitting “this murky goddess of Beanville” to ride.
Now, Finison and Knox’s relatives hope the new headstone, inscribed with a bicycle, will keep her story alive.
“I would hope that people take away some sense of her courage and pluck in what she did, in a time when it was not easy,” Finison said. “There are some lessons in terms of the need to put up resistance to the kind of injustice that she and others faced at the time.”
Finison said Knox’s story also underlines the struggle of the modern bicycling community to bring a greater diversity of riders into its ranks, both for health and environmental reasons.
“She represents to me the movement to broaden bicycling beyond where it started in 1870s, when it was almost exclusively the province of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men,” he said.
Much of the Globe’s coverage of early Boston cycling clubs, as cited by Finison, betrays blatantly racist and sexist attitudes common in that era. But one Globe report from the event in 1895 at Asbury Park trumpeted Knox’s abilities, perhaps to point a finger at Southern papers that had decried her participation.
“The leaders tried to lose Knox during the eighteen mile run but she was game, and when the big crowd entered the town on the return trip she was up with the leaders, sailing with the best of them,” the Globe wrote. “She was not to be consigned to the tribe of ‘also rans,’ and today all the League members are anxious to see her. And when she appears in the street she receives more attention than a half dozen star racing men.”