With the appointment of former NBA star Reggie Miller to Cycling USA’s Board of Directors and increasingly prominent activist groups such as Atlanta’s Civil Bikes, Black cyclists are leading the way in having cycling address its racial problems.
These problems are long-standing. From the beginning of the bicycle revolution in the 1890s, White Americans worked to stop Black men, women and children from riding bicycles. This was especially true in the South.
Threatened by the radical mobility of the bicycle, White southerners attempted to prevent Black Americans from riding in public and sought to curtail the rise of a separate Black cycling culture — the legacy of which modern cycling is confronting to this day.
Over the course of the 1890s, the modern bicycle — with two wheels of equal size and diamond frame — went from a high-tech and elite consumer good associated with athletic White men to a democratic technology embraced by women and a broad swath of Americans. During this decade, millions of bicycles were produced, while a glut of new, used and rental bicycles lowered the purchase cost dramatically. No longer a high-status item associated with privilege and leisure, the middle class lost interest in cycling and the first American bicycle boom was over by 1900.
During the first great wave of cycling enthusiasm, cycling clubs and clubhouses were opened in places such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Louisville and Nashville. White southerners used the expensive and high-tech bicycle to flaunt their wealth and advocate for cycling infrastructure.
To meet the demand, municipalities across the region created bicycle paths, racing tracks and paved roads — sometimes constructed by unpaid incarcerated Black men. As late as 1899, a cycling trade magazine predicted that the South — with its mild weather, relatively flat topography and developing infrastructure — would be America’s foremost cycling region and a bright spot at a moment when the popularity of the bicycle was in decline.
It didn’t. Instead by 1900, the cycling boom had ended in the South just as it had in the rest of the nation. Why? Racism got in the way.
Black southerners had taken up cycling for many of the same reasons their White peers had: for social status, as a sport and as a convenient way to get around. But for Black cyclists, the bicycle was also an acute symbol of the extent and limits of freedom in the age of Jim Crow.
For the Black elite and middle classes, the bicycle was a badge of freedom that also provided a way to navigate around increasingly segregated public transit systems. In 1906, the Black newspaper, the Richmond Planet, encouraged its readers in Newport News to take up cycling to avoid their city’s Jim Crow streetcars, noting that over in Richmond, Black cyclists had been so successful that “we have well-nigh forgotten the feeling of electric traveling.”
Across the Deep South, cycling became a part of Black communities. Black cyclists participated in their separate cycling competitions in places such as Atlanta and Savannah. Black women in Brunswick, Ga., formed their own club amid public debates about whether women should ride bicycles at all. In New Orleans and Raleigh, Black cyclists organized public bicycle parades, decorating their bicycles with lanterns, ribbons and other regalia. In doing so, they laid claim to a middle class status and the South’s public space at the moment Jim Crow segregation sought to deny Black southerners’ access to both.
Because of this, Southern Whites attempted to stop Black people from riding bicycles where and when they could. In 1894, the League of American Wheelmen (the largest cycling club in the nation) became a Whites-only organization at the behest of its Southern members who believed that its few Black members undermined the organization’s expansion in the region.
Newspaper records between 1890 and 1910 reveal policing of Black cycling mobility. In 1893, for instance, Jim Murray, Macon, Ga.’s only Black cyclist, was the first to be arrested for breaking the city’s new bicycle laws. Black journalist David Bryan Fulton pointed to Black cyclists in Wilmington, N.C., as one source of the White anger that fueled the 1898 coup and massacre, which saw a White mob overthrow the city’s democratically elected biracial government, murder Black citizens and destroy the city’s only Black newspaper.
Other incidents of White southerners attacking Black cyclists were recorded during the boom period. One occurred in Norfolk, after a cycling collision between two White railroad clerks and a Black cyclist who refused to accept their claims that he was at fault and was assaulted by the clerks.
As a symbol of modernity and speed, the popularity of the bicycle declined swiftly at the start of the 20th century to be replaced by the new American obsession with the automobile. But new technologies do not necessarily replace old ones because they are better. In the South, the new and unreliable automobile replaced the bicycle in the minds of many White southerners not because it was superior but because it was out of the reach of Black southerners.
In 1900, the head of the dying Tennessee Division of the League of American Wheelmen concluded that the “principal cause of the deterioration of cycling in the State is owing to the reduction of cost of bicycles, thereby enabling the colored brother and sister to possess wheels, and as a result one can see in [Nashville] about ten times as many colored people riding as you do White people, and it is a rare sight at present to see a White woman riding a wheel.”
In short, a belief in the whiteness of technological mobility foreclosed alternative transportation futures in a region dominated by the racist logic of Jim Crow.
For Black southerners, the cost, dangers and White policing of cycling combined with the weakening of its middle class status, meant that the popularity of the bicycle declined within the Black community as well.
This, of course, does not mean Black Americans stopped cycling completely.
Civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth commuted by bicycle for years to the Alpha Portland Cement Plant from his home in Birmingham, Ala., because his family did not have access to a car. Black southerners continue to ride bicycles for recreational, leisure and utilitarian purposes, as demonstrated by Atlanta’s flourishing Black cycling scene. To this day, Concourse B in Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport features an art installation by Black sculptor Charles Lucas testifying to the promise of freedom cycling offered Black southerners.
Looking at the wax and wane of the bicycle in the South during the first boom helps us understand the ways racism has shaped not only America’s transportation past and present but it can also help us to look for and address the power imbalances in our sustainable transportation future.