Culture  /  Retrieval

American Cycling Has a Racism Problem

How racism has shaped the history — and present — of bicycle use.

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.”