At the height of the bicycling craze in the 1890s, Boston was home to two trailblazing female cyclists: Kittie Knox, who broke racial barriers to compete, and Annie Londonderry, who gained international fame for embarking on an epic bike ride around the world.
And they both lived in the same neighborhood: the West End.
“They lived just a few blocks from each other, at the same time,” said author Lorenz J. Finison, who has written two books about Boston’s cycling history.
The fascinating stories of how these two female cyclists overcame discrimination and challenged the status quo are highlighted in a new exhibit called “Cycling Legends of the West End,” which runs through May 30 at the West End Museum.
Several programs are complementing the exhibition. On Saturday, a reception will be held in the afternoon followed by a “West End Heritage Night” celebrating the life of Kittie Knox and her contributions to the sport of cycling.
Knox “confronted racism head-on" and “promoted women’s independence ... by daring to don pantaloons while riding instead of the heavy, long skirts of her day,” museum officials said in a press release. “She bravely challenged race and gender roles in cycling, forever changing its future and advancing equality for African Americans and women alike.”
Born in Cambridge in 1874 to a Black father and a white mother, Knox was a seamstress and an accomplished cyclist who belonged to the League of American Wheelmen (also known as LAW).
When some chapters of LAW sought to ban Black cyclists from joining the league, Knox didn’t back down. In 1895, she attended the league’s national meet in Asbury Park, N.J., where she did not exactly receive a warm welcome.
“There was quite a bit of controversy at that summer meet in Asbury,” said Finison.
Knox got turned away from hotels, but eventually found a place to stay and made her presence known throughout the meet. She made national headlines for challenging the league’s “color bar."
“This afternoon Miss Knox did a few fancy cuts in front of the clubhouse and was requested to desist,” the New York Times reported on July 9, 1895. "It is thought that this episode will result in temporarily opening the color line question.”
On July 10, 1895, the San Francisco Call ran a story about Knox attending the meet and how league officials refused to give her a credential badge. “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.”
According to that story, one LAW official from Boston said he “considered the refusal entirely unwarranted.”
Finison said Knox stayed at the meet and even danced at the evening ball.
About two weeks later, Knox’s name and the issue of race came up in the July 26, 1895 edition of the LAW Bulletin. In the Q and A section of the league’s weekly journal, a member asked: “How can a negro be a member of the L.A.W. as it appears Miss Knox of Boston is?” In response, league officials said: “Miss Katie J. Knox joined the League, April 1, 1893. The word ‘white’ was put into the constitution, Feb. 20, 1894. Such laws are not and cannot be retroactive.”
Today, Knox is viewed as a hero. Just last month, the Smithsonian Libraries highlighted some of her accomplishments in a series of tweets, noting that “she continued to participate in meets around the country" and "helped democratize cycling - for both women and cyclists of all races.”
Around the same time, another West End woman was gaining international fame as she pedaled around the world. Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, who used the alias Annie Londonderry, was a Latvian/Jewish immigrant who lived on Spring Street in Boston’s West End. In June 1894, she bid goodbye to her husband and three young children and embarked on an epic bike ride around the globe that took 15 months to complete.
She earned money during the trip by pinning advertisements to her clothes.
At one point on her journey through France, she said three masked men tried to rob her. According to her story in the San Francisco Examiner, the robbers knocked her off her bike and she was thrown down to the ground. That’s when she pulled out a revolver from the holster on her belt and aimed it at her assailants. One of the men backed off but another got behind her and grabbed her throat. She said they wrestled the weapon from her hands and rifled through her pockets, but she only had three francs, and she managed to escape.
“The fall from the wheel sprained my ankle and my shoulder was bruised considerably, but I had enough vitality left to continue the journey,” she told the San Francisco Examiner.
Cycling Events at the West End Museum
“Cycling Legends of the West End” Reception
Saturday, Feb. 29, 2-4 p.m.
West End Heritage Night
Saturday, Feb. 29, 4-6 p.m.
The West End Museum will proudly honor Kittie Knox.
Cost: Free. Pre-registration appreciated, but not required; Light refreshments will be served.
The West End Museum is located at 150 Staniford St. in Boston. For more information call 617-723-2125 or visit thewestendmuseum.org.