With gender-defying pantaloons, impressive cycling tricks, and a persevering attitude, Katherine “Kittie” Towle Knox pedaled through the late 19th century’s racial and gender barriers.
The Cambridge native’s trailblazing exploits as a Black female bicyclist who defied norms of the day were little known for more than a century until a local historian unearthed her story. And on Sunday, about 100 people took off on bicycles through Boston and surrounding communities to honor her.
The cyclists started Sunday morning in two groups, one at Franklin Park and the other at Copley Square. and traveled through Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, and Waltham. Event organizers said they hoped the Kittie Knox Ride advanced her legacy by creating a cycling space where people of all backgrounds could come together behind a shared interest.
“These events are supposed to get people to mingle,” said Wendy Schwartz, Allston resident and a cofounder of the New England Cycling Coalition for Diversity, which curated hosted the event, along with MassBike, NECCD, and more than 20 partner organizations. “When people have fun together, we can overcome social differences.”
Born to a white mother and Black father in Cambridgeport in 1874, Knox scraped together money earned from her seamstress job to hop into the cycling craze of the time. Knox was a founding member of the Riverside Cycling Club, an early Black cycling group in Boston, and joined the overwhelmingly white, male League of American Wheelmen in 1893, a year before the group barred non-white cyclists from joining.
She died at 26 in 1900 from kidney disease.
After historian Lorenz “Larry” Finison 80, of Needham, rediscovered her story and tracked down living descendants, Knox’s unmarked grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge received a headstone in 2013. In 2019, Cambridge named a bike path connecting Binney Street and Broadway after her. In 2020, then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared Aug. 20 of that year Katherine T. “Kittie” Knox Day.
As participants gathered at a registration table near Franklin Park’s White Stadium Sunday morning, Finison said learning about Knox’s story pushed him to help bring different communities together through their common passion for cycling.
”Her story motivated me to do whatever I could to diversify cycling,” Finison said. “We need to make sure we live up to her legacy and that of the Riverside Cycling Club.”
Galen Mook, 37, MassBike executive director and resident of Allston, said that although white riders made up the majority of Sunday’s event, ”there’s something beautiful” about seeing all kinds of people uniting for a common interest.
”Cycling is universal,” he said.
Among the throng of participants near White Stadium were Robert Redd and Gloria Wilkins, residents of Roxbury and members of the Roxbury Bicycle Brigade. As Black cyclists, the pair said, they feel a personal connection to Knox’s story.
”Being an African American at the forefront of cycling at the turn of the 20th century is significant,” Redd said. “She’s a role model that we hope we can carry on the tradition for.”
By setting the route through different parts of Greater Boston, Randolph Williams, a NECCD cofounder who lives in Winchester, said the cyclists can experience firsthand how uneven investments in bike lanes are and can consider how that affects cyclists from marginalized areas.
“There are a lot of minority cyclists, but the infrastructure isn’t set up for them,” Williams said.
One stop along the biking path was Knox’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, where the cyclists gathered to pay tribute to her.
Nancy Towle Millet, a relative of Knox who lives in Acton, joined event participants at the gravesite. She smiled as she shared one of the few surviving photos of the cycling pioneer.
Towle Millet said she was proud of Knox, who “had the guts” to defy all odds.
”As long as someone knows her name, she’s never passed,” she said.