Book Review: Boston’s Cycling Craze by Lorenz J. Finison.

[Image Credit: Illustration of Kitty Knox from an 1895 issue of The Spy. Artist unknown. Uncovered thanks to the research of Lorenz J. Finison.]

Finison, Lorenz J. Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society. U of Massachusetts P, 2014. Print.

Though it looks familiar to us now, when it first appeared in the early 1890s, the safety bicycle looked revolutionary. It had two wheels of the same diameter, rubber and inflatable tires, a diamond frame, a chain and gears, and often it had brakes too. The dangerous penny-farthings and cumbersome tricycles, which had been so popular in the 1870s and 1880s, quickly disappeared. The safety bicycle’s attraction lay in its ease of operation, and, as the name suggests, in its safety. All that was necessary was the money to buy one, and as they became more popular they quickly became more and more affordable.

One normally associates the early days of cycling in the US and Britain with a very specific demographic – Protestant and white men. (Cycling was extremely popular in France too; the main demographic there was virtually identical, though not Protestant). Finison explores exceptions to that rule as they appeared in and around Boston. Women made noticeable contributions to some of the prominent clubs, supporting and joining their husbands, family members, and potential beaus. There were also women only clubs. Irish, Italians, and Jews organized their own clubs, too. There was even one Chinese American in Boston, a certain Henry Ar Foon, who rode with Boston cycling clubs until 1899.

The main thrust of Finison’s research sheds light on the emergence of African American cycling clubs in the 1890s, especially the Riverside Cycling Club of Cambridgeport. He paints a picture of a new entrepreneurial class of African Americans, based in Boston’s West End, and later in the South End, who envisaged cycling as a marker of success and engagement in American life. The older Black elite of Boston, those with connections to the Abolitionist movement, did not join cycling clubs. In Boston’s African American community, cycling and cycling clubs was strictly limited to the bourgeoisie or those aspiring to get there. As such, Finison reveals how cycling and African American identity coalesced to magnify dignity, strengthen health, and bolster camaraderie.

Sadly, the cycling craze coincided with some of the worst years of anti-Black terrorism: 1890s was also a decade of lynching and intensifying Jim Crow laws. While the racism in the north took less violent forms, it nevertheless still existed, and Finison recounts the specific impact racism had on the African American cyclists in the Boston area. First, the Riverside Cycling Club had to make extra preparations for any rides they took outside of the city. They created a network of black establishments where they could stop for rest, food, and accommodation. Many places would not serve them. Second, though many prominent white cyclists paid lip service to the promises of Abolition and the principles of the 14th Amendment, they did not support African American cyclists when action was required. The most prominent example of this occurred in 1894 when the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), the national body supervising all cycling clubs and racing, passed a “color bar,” which banned African Americans from joining. Boston cyclists opposed it in the papers and in interviews, but they acquiesced to a vocal and southern minority in the LAW.

By far the most important opposition to the LAW color bar came from Kittie Knox, a 21-year-old avid cyclist who was also black. In July of 1895, the LAW held its first national convention since it introduced the color bar at Asbury Park, NJ. Kittie Knox had paid her membership before the ban (membership was not cheap) and attempted to collect her club badge. She was turned away at the door, despite having presented her membership card.  She collected her bike, rode a “few fancy cuts in front of the clubhouse… was requested to desist,” and then rode away. The Riverside Cycling Club was not present to fight the ban. Besides, it did not officially accept women and may not have supported Kitty. The women’s cycling clubs at the LAW Meeting did not support Kittie Knox either. In fact, many of them threatened to leave LAW if the color ban was not enforced against her. Kittie Knox acted completely independently.

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Finison’s book is well researched. A thorough referencing of the journalism from this time supports his main arguments. I would say its main flaw is that it is not as unified as it could have been. The chapters on women’s cycling clubs, and Italian, Irish and Jewish cycling clubs, were very interesting, but detracted from what seems to be the book’s main thrust, which is the experience of African Americans and cycling in the 1890s. The chapter on Marshal “Major” Taylor fits into this history, but I think it is obvious that the main focus of his book should have been Kittie Knox and other African Americans in her social situation. There are already so many books on Major Taylor.

Since there is virtually no photographic record, and journalism on the subject seems scant, uncovering the history of African Americans in cycling is quite a precious and valuable thing to do. I’m left wondering what other avenues there are for revealing African American involvement in cycling in the 1890s. I am hopeful there is much more to find and to say. I am awaiting Marya McQuirter’s book project, Technochoreographies. Her work “places black subjects and blackness at the center of a history of bicycles, and the technological and cultural changes taking place in the long 19th century.” Let’s wait and see.

For a brief summary about Kitty Knox by Lorenz Finison, take a look at his article at VeloNews.