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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The League of American Wheelmen

Beginning in the 1870s, the Nation was swept by what highway historians call the Bicycle Craze. The craze began with the "ordinary" or "Penny farthing" (the bicycle with the large front wheel and a smaller rear wheel), but became even more widespread with introduction of the "safety" bicycle in the 1880s (two wheels of equal size with pneumatic tires) that could be operated by virtually anyone. Millions of riders rode around the Nation's cities, wore bicycle clothes purchased at bicycle shops, read bicycle publications, attended bicycle training academies, watched bicycle races, formed bicycle clubs, rode in urban velodromes, and agitated for legislation to promote bicycling.

Author Fred C. Kelly said of the craze:

When a craze of any kind really catches on in this republic, restraint does not characterize its reception. The great bicycle craze of the Gay Nineties offers a fairly good example. Listen to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1895: "The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars . . . thrown in." Hear also the official voice of the United States Census, at the end of the same decade: "Few articles ever used by man have ever created so great a revolution in social conditions."

. . . The craze hit all ages. It led to a change in women's styles-skirts became shorter-and it started the movement toward decent roads. It was the great leveler, too, demonstrating as never before the American principle that every man is as good as any other and maybe better. [Kelly, Fred C., "The Great Bicycle Craze," American Heritage , December 1956, p. 69]

The craze would affect coming transportation revolutions. Several early automobile innovators emerged from the bicycle industry, including the Duryea Brothers (who in 1893 built the first American automobile with an internal combustion engine), Alexander Winton, Alexander Pope, and the Apperson Brothers. Orville and Wilbur Wright, who would launch the aviation industry, began their careers in the bicycle and repair business in Dayton, Ohio.

Bicycle clubs came together to form the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.) in 1880 and it quickly became the country's premier bicycling association. It provided assistance to its members, held conventions, worked to change State and local laws that inhibited bicycling, and enticed the Federal Government into rudimentary efforts to improve the Nation's country roads. The L.A.W. sponsored the agitation that prompted Congress to appropriate $10,000 for a road inquiry in the Department of Agriculture. Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton launched the inquiry in 1893 with the opening of the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry (forerunner of the Federal Highway Administration), which was limited initially to educational, technical, and promotional activities.

The L.A.W. had to address the racial issue in its early years. Professor Robert A. Smith, in his book on the impacts of the Bicycle Craze, was not able to find information on when African-Americans began bicycling. He speculated that African-Americans took to the bicycle later than whites, "if for no other reason than that the early bicycles were so expensive." He added:

Nevertheless, Negroes took to the machine like everyone else, and there is reason to believe that the old ordinaries found their final homes in the South.

The color line was first drawn when it came to membership in the League of American Wheelmen and participation in league-sponsored racing meets. In the early years, when the cycle was expensive, the question of Negro membership in the league did not really come up, but by 1890 it had become an issue that the organization tried to solve by ignoring it. However, the problem did not go away, and two years later some LAW members were arguing that the league was a voluntary social organization and that each local unit had the right to exclude whomever it wanted. The larger question raised by this debate was what would happen if a local unit of the league voted to accept Negroes as members. Did membership in the local club also carry membership in the national organization, and if so, did this mean that black members could attend league conventions?

The issue could be delayed only so long. During the L.A.W.'s 1893 convention in Louisville, a Louisville attorney named Colonel William W. Watts proposed a motion that would change the group's constitution to limit membership to white people:

The motion, which had to be carried by a majority of two thirds, split the convention almost exactly, 108 votes for and 101 against. The foes of discrimination had good reason to be discouraged, because in the year following, when the matter came before the convention again, the lily-whites won the day. The constitution was amended, and Negroes were excluded from membership in the League of American Wheelmen.

The New York Tribune condemned the action ("wheelmen generally must look with disfavor upon the outcome of the convention . . . . Fair-minded men will condemn the exclusion of colored men."), while the Chicago Record asked, "Does the desirability of securing a few thousand more white wheelmen justify the gratuitous exclusion of a worthy race?" [Smith, Robert A., A Social History of the Bicycle , American Heritage Press, 1972, p. 162-163]

In reaction to the decision, the L.A.W.'s magazine, Good Roads , carried an editorial in the April 1894 issue titled "The Colored Man and the League." The author began:

The principal thing which most people know about the above subject is that by a vote of the National Assembly at Louisville, the "colored brother" was prohibited in future from becoming a member of the L.A.W. Like all radical measures this action was hissed and applauded by the public according to the various shades of belief.

The author had opposed the "white" amendment a year earlier, but had changed his mind by the time of the vote in 1894. The issue was whether the L.A.W. was a political organization:

It will some day come to be considered purely a political party and when that time comes there can be no doubt as to the advisability of admitting to membership any respectable person of whatever race. At present the League contains a number of young men who feel and not without reason, that the L.A.W. is a sort of fraternity, the different members of which are in some way definitely positioned with relation to each other. The existence of this feeling especially in the South, where the race prejudice is very strong, made the Southern white wheelman indifferent if not actually antagonistic to the organization so long as the black man was permitted to enjoy the same privileges as himself, while it does not appear that any considerable number of colored wheelmen really availed themselves of the advantages of membership.

Many of the men who do the thinking for the League came to believe that by his exclusion the negro would suffer but little while the League as a whole might be greatly benefitted. It was represented that many white wheelmen at [sic] the South would at once come in if the change were made, who certainly would not otherwise. It was known that a few at the North would withdraw, but it was hoped that after a complete readjustment had taken place the L.A.W would find itself stronger than before.

Many members, the editorial stated, believed that "the average colored man does not come up to the standard of intelligence which we would like to see him attain." Education, particularly "in so far as related to his conduct on the road," was one reason the editorial offered for encouraging their participation in the movement, if not membership in the L.A.W. Given the importance of the L.A.W.'s publications in the cause of education, the editor offered a subscription to the monthly Good Roads , normally $1 a year (50 cents to members), to "any colored wheelman who would join the League if he could" for the membership price of 50 cents "on receipt of his written statement as to the above facts." The editorial concluded:

We would especially like to hear from any League member who sees an objection to our making this concession to the "colored brother."

Not all clubs excluded African-Americans, as Smith illustrated:

Some local clubs already had black members. One was the Post Office Cyclers of Newark, New Jersey. The postal riders had been invited to participate in a bicycle run sponsored by another club, but when the latter organization discovered the postal crew had a black member, Mr. L. A. Sears, it withdrew its invitation. The Post Office Cyclers in turn unanimously elected Mr. Sears club president. But incidents like this did not stop discrimination, and the usual result was that Negroes organized their own cycling clubs. To point a moral, a Brunswick, Georgia, cycle club for black women ceremoniously excluded their white sisters from membership. [Social History , p. 162-163]

Some bicycle clubs and some African-Americans ignored the racial bias:

Apparently the amendment was ignored by some. Miss Kitty Knox from the all-black Riverside Cycle Club of Boston showed up at the LAW's meet in Asbury Park [New Jersey] in 1895. She was the focus of all attention when she did a "few fancy cuts" in front of the clubhouse, and that night Miss Knox seems to have been the belle of the ball. The next day the newspapers said that local grumblers were going to get the LAW to look into the fact that Miss Knox had held a membership card for the last six years.

Not all cycling groups followed the LAW's lead, however. The Illinois branch of the American Cycling Road Association, an independent group, did not draw the color line, and when some members insisted that the organization do so, the officers said that such a position would be a violation of the Constitution. In 1896, when several riders threatened to pull out of the Pullman Road Race if the all-black Douglass Club sent a racer, officials responded that they would not only allow the man to enter, but that they would see that he got fair treatment. In 1897 a black man finished the race, so obviously the color line was not drawn. [Social History , p. 163-164]

(The Pullman Road Race began in 1883, and changed formats and courses over the years. In general, as in 1896-97, it featured hundreds of racers on an 18-mile course that began in Chicago at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street, continued through Washington Park, the Midway Plaisance, and Jackson Park, then on to the village of Pullman.)

In part, the debate arose because of bicycle racing. Virtually from the introduction of the ordinary in the 1870s, bicyclists began racing. Harper's Weekly magazine reported that in 1878, Will Pitman won the first 1-mile bicycle race in the United States. Bicycle racing-road races and track competitions-would become one of the country's most popular sports, with extensive coverage in newspapers helping to make the top racers national celebrities.

Initially, the racers were amateurs. For a race to be fair, each competitor had to be on even footing, but the term "amateur" quickly became blurred as the popularity of the sport grew. Claiming a racer was an amateur became more difficult when prizes were awarded, racers were sponsored by clubs or bicycle manufacturers, and racers began touring the country to compete in races.

The L.A.W. took on the role of determining who was, and wasn't, an amateur. Over time, the L.A.W. found the task of overseeing the rules of bicycle racing more challenging with increases in the popularity of the sport, the notoriety of the racers, and the size of the prizes. In 1893, the L.A.W.'s racing committee tried to resolve the issues by dividing racers into three categories: Class A, Class B, and Professional:

  • The Class A was a true amateur who could accept nothing in return for his efforts, not even a token prize.
  • The Class B amateur could accept pay from sponsors, such as bicycle manufacturers, who paid his expenses as he traveled to races around the country.
  • Professionals were full competitors in it for the money and fame.

Controversies over the fairness of the races, including the participation of African-Americans, would continue for years, even after the L.A.W., diminished in membership and authority, abandoned its role in racing in 1900. [Social History , p. 144, 151-155]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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