By Hamzat Sani
In July 1895, a young bi-racial woman entered the gathering of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in Asbury Park, New Jersey, seeking to gain entry as a card carrying member. As simple as this routine had been for the few years she had been a member of the LAW this time was extraordinarily different — this time Katherine “Kittie” Knox expected to be barred because of her skin color.
It had only been a year since Colonel William W. Watts of Louisville, Kentucky, had finally completed his successful campaign of establishing a resolution in the National LAW Constitution that relegated membership to “none but white persons.” The resolution, passed at the League’s National Assembly February 20, 1894, by a 127 to 54 secret vote, took three attempts to finally pass (starting with an effort in 1892) even with unanimous support from the League’s southern membership. Watts campaign to establish a color bar in the League was one of persistence, dedication and cunning.
When Watts initially introduced the idea in 1892 the northern faction of the League was able to defeat the measure, but by 1893 the writing was on the wall. Watts idea of color bar came during the post-reconstruction era when anti-black sentiment was at its highest in the South and at its most indifferent in the North. After the 1893 vote on the color bar issue proved to be fruitless, Watts lacked the ⅔ majority needed to pass the measure, the Colonel returned to Louisville to make sure the next would be clearly in his favor. Watts secured a largely ambiguous letter of support from the all-black Union Cycling Club in Louisville. Watts used the letter as proof that black cyclists were in support of a color bar as well, when in reality the leader of Union had only agreed to the letter after pressure from Watts and his cohorts in the city, as well as the anti-black faction making it clear that no southern members of the L.A.W. would be black. Watts had successfully established the “whites only” clause in his club’s constitution already. Along with this “letter of support,” Watts also had home field advantage for the 1894 Annual Assembly, which he utilized expertly by making sure to entertain and gift the visiting Wheelmen with whiskey.
The resolution was met with much opposition and controversy in the north resulting in a resolution by the Massachusetts Legislature denouncing the L.A.W. color bar. Many northern clubs sought to ignore it or were indifferent about enforcing the color bar. Some, like the Boston delegation to the League’s 1895 Meet in Asbury Park, were determined to make some waves about the matter. Boston had quite a bit to be upset about at the 1895 gathering. They had lost out to Asbury Park in the voting for the location of the very meet they had to travel to attend. The Boston delegation had wanted badly to host the meet in their hometown going as far as to lobby Louis C. Jacquish, Chief Counsel of the Illinois L.A.W. to cease his motion to have the “white only” clause struck from the constitution at the previous gathering for fear that such a motion would cause southern members to vote for Asbury Park as the next host city. Jacquish abandoned his motion and Boston still lost to Asbury Park. On top of that the delegation had posted a failing group vote in opposition to the color bar the previous year. With the Boston delegation came the Riverside Cycling Club, the city’s all black cycling club, a black politician by the name of Robert Teamoh, who was the author of the resolution denouncing the color bar in Massachusetts’ Legislature and of course Kittie Knox, already known in the cycling world for her dashing cycling costumes and affinity for men’s knickerbockers. Needless to say Boston came to Asbury Park with not only a chip on its shoulder but with intentions to oppose recent developments within the national L.A.W. body that were opposed to their relatively anti-racist principles.
While there seem to be some discrepancies regarding whether or not Ms. Knox was granted entry most reliable accounts maintain that she was allowed to enter the Wheelmen’s gathering and was in fact one of the highlights of the ball that evening. Knox had been a member of L.A.W. prior to the 1894 bar of non-whites and thus was still a legitimate member and could continue to be a member for as long as she wished. The color bar was arranged, interestingly enough, to bar black from becoming new members but allow for non-whites to race in League sanctioned races. This partial barring allowed the League to certify races with big name stars like Major Taylor and even declare him a national and world champion without the possibility of Taylor’s voice being heard as part of the Wheelmen’s membership.
While Kittie Knox was able to have her day at the ball, the generation of black cyclists that had been proud L.A.W. members passed, with Knox herself passing just a few years after the Asbury Park showdown. The League of American Wheelmen would thrive and then disappear over the years, being reincarnated a few times. The story, and perhaps even the existence of the 1894 color bar, must have been forgotten in the passing of time. The ban would linger until 1999 when League of American Bicyclist’s President Earl Jones signed a resolution revoking the 1894 decision and issuing an apology on behalf of the League, as well as a posthumous membership to Major Taylor. Jones, upon passing the resolution, stated: “Finally, I hope that the League, by taking this step, can lead cycling into more diverse and representative participation.”
In the 119 years since the color line was drawn, cycling is still mostly regarded as a white male endeavor whether in the sport or advocacy world. In the sport there are only handful of cyclists of color in the pro circuit, while in advocacy bicycle lanes have become synonymous to the pushing out of lower-income and communities of color called gentrification. In the 14 years since Earl Jones signed the resolution officially opening the League up for all people to join there has been little done programmatically to reach the goal of a “more diverse and representative participation.”
Earlier this year The League formed the ten member Equity Advisory Council in response to a persistent call by advocates around the nation to address the unequal representation in cycling advocacy. The Council is charged with overseeing the League’s Equity efforts and ensuring that they fit within the scope of the organization’s mission and are truly beneficial and relevant to the communities not normally seen as part of cycling advocacy. The Council will see the League through an internal assessment of how it can perform better on the issue of equitable representation and also develop tools for other organizations seeking to engage communities in equitable programming as well.
Explorations into an organization's participation in exclusionary tactics in its past can often be painful or unpleasant however those that have the courage to seek out their faults, identify them and act upon them to their fullest capability are the organizations that thrive with the respect of their membership.