As cycling boomed in 19th-century America, its Black stars shone bright

<span>Woody Hedspeth was one of several Black American cyclists in the early 20th-century to move abroad to further his career. </span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Turpin</span>
Woody Hedspeth was one of several Black American cyclists in the early 20th-century to move abroad to further his career. Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Turpin

When cycling first took the US by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black Americans joined in the new pastime. One Black cyclist, Marshall “Major” Taylor, became a world champion in 1899. Yet American cycling installed a color line in professional racing. Opportunities became so limited that Black competitors had to take them wherever they could find them – including on the vaudeville stage and in Europe. Their story is documented in a new book, Black Cyclists: The Race for Inclusion, by Robert J Turpin, a professor of history at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina.

“We fall into the trap that history is linear,” Turpin says. “With race relations, we think about the end of the Civil War: ‘Slavery ended, and things gradually got better and better for Black people.’ My book shows what we already know: Things actually got worse for Black people in the US, especially from the 1880s through the 1920s … It got harder for Black cyclists to compete as professionals or even win prize money in general.”

Turpin is a cyclist himself, and his college features a cycling studies minor, which he believes is the only such program in the US. His interest in the history of cycling extends to how it has been marketed over the decades – the subject of his previous book. He hails from Kentucky, and laments Southern cyclists’ role in segregating the sport in the decades after the Civil War.

Turpin raises another issue: a lack of diversity in contemporary cycling. The book cites a 2020 USA Cycling survey of over 7,000 members in which just 3% reported they were Black or African American. Such underrepresentation extends to the upcoming Olympics and the Tour de France, where this week Biniam Girmay became the first Black African stage winner in the race’s 120-year history. Yet the book notes the increasing impact and influence of Black elite competitors such as 11-time national champion Justin Williams and the first Black female professional cyclist, Ayesha McGowan.

Before attending graduate school at the University of Kentucky in 2009, Turpin learned about Taylor, whose exploits in cycling began as a teenager in Indianapolis, and crested with a world championship in the one-mile sprint in Montreal. In doing so, he became the first Black American world champion in any sport and his achievements were chronicled in an autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.

“He was an international superstar,” Turpin says. “We don’t think about Black people in cycling during [the 19th century] … I needed to know if he was the only major Black cyclist. I suspected he wasn’t.”

Several years later, Turpin returned to Taylor’s story. By that time, additional primary sources had been made publicly available through digitization. Turpin learned more about not only Taylor, but also his predecessors and peers.

“They just got a little bit of attention,” Turpin said about other Black cyclists in the historical record. “They were mentioned in passing. I wanted to give them a little more focus, talk about their experiences, how those experiences fit in with some of the historical changes.”

Cycling in the late 19th century was hugely popular, with packed crowds for night-time races at Madison Square Garden and 1m bicycles manufactured each year from 1898 to 1899 in the US.

“It was one of the faster ways to move around,” Turpin says, “one of the fastest forms of mobility, especially long-distance … It was enormously popular, especially among middle to upper-class people.”

Massachusetts became a venue for early Black success in cycling. David Drummond regularly won Fourth of July races in Boston. Taylor used his winnings to buy a home in Worcester – and the city’s first automobile. Katherine “Kittie” Knox, a seamstress turned racing star, was famous for her self-designed outfits and her endurance. Knox illuminated challenges faced by cyclists who were both Black and female.

“If you were Black and a woman, those were two big strikes against you,” Turpin says. “People thought you should not be riding a bicycle if you were a woman, and you should not be riding a bicycle if you were Black. So there was a double burden there.”

In 1894, a prominent nationwide cycling organization called the League of American Wheelmen, spurred by a Kentuckian member, barred all Black cyclists except Taylor from professional racing. The ban was not officially repealed until 1999 by the organization, which had been renamed the League of American Bicyclists.

The book shows the ways in which Black cyclists responded. These included criticizing the decision in the Massachusetts state legislature and forming Black cycling leagues.

“I stress their agency,” Turpin says. “I do not talk about them as victims. They were resourceful in figuring out alternative ways to still make a living and find social mobility.”

One option was the six-day race, a grueling event open to cyclists of all races. Another was the vaudeville circuit, although a cyclist’s time on stage was often limited to less than 10 minutes.

Related: Biniam Girmay becomes first black African to win Tour de France stage

Unlike Jim Crow America, international venues welcomed Black participation as professionals. Taylor left for France and Australia, and named his daughter Sydney after the city where he felt most welcome. Fellow racer Woody Hedspeth followed Taylor to France – and while Taylor returned to the US, Hedspeth remained in Paris. Taking up residence in the French capital, Hedspeth reportedly married a local cabaret dancer, and they had a daughter.

“He stayed abroad,” Turpin says. “That tells me he must have really felt things were better there in France than the US.”

Hedspeth only left after Paris had fallen under Vichy control in the second world war. Evacuated by the Red Cross, and separated from his partner and their child, he died of tuberculosis and typhus in Lisbon in 1941, while waiting for transport back to the US.

Most of the cyclists in the book had unhappy postscripts – even Taylor. Although he had become one of America’s wealthiest Black men, he was ruined by post-cycling business decisions. Separated from his wife and daughter, he relocated to a Chicago YMCA. He died at age 53, about a month after undergoing heart surgery. Knox died of kidney disease in her 20s. Two Black cyclists of the era – Drummond and William Ivy – were hospitalized in mental institutions, for unclear reasons, while a third – Hardy Jackson – was imprisoned twice, the second time for statutory rape.

“There are no happy stories,” Turpin says. “I tried to, in the end, [offer] a glimmer of hope.”

When the sport was poised for a mid-20th-century rebirth, Black cyclists were part of the story. The first Black cyclist to compete for the US in the Olympics was Herbie Francis in Rome in 1960. USA’s first Black Olympic medalist was Nelson Vails, who took silver in the individual sprint at the 1984 LA Olympics, and went on to ride alongside Kevin Bacon in the 1986 film Quicksilver. In 2009, Vails was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame.

More recently, cycling has been used to advance the causes of Black Lives Matter and reparations. One renowned Black cyclist and activist, 10-time national champion Rahsaan Bahati, seeks to popularize cycling in the inner city – making it accessible to poor people of all races who live there.

Turpin considers the pioneering Black cyclists he studied to have had a similar social conscience in their day.

“All these Black cyclists, I argue, were activists,” he says. “They were doing something that … no one [else] seemed to be doing. All these people were making a statement.”