Pictorial History of Black Cyclists; Inventors, Athletes, Leaders and More

By Kate Agathon

Celebrating Black History Month

With Black History Month coming to close here is an article by Kate Agathon of Campus Cycles which highlights the achievements and contributions of black inventors, athletes, community organizers, soldiers, and outdoor enthusiasts, etc. to cycling.

Additionally, through a photographic journey, we underscore how bicycles have been utilized by the black community since the late 1880s to present.

Four cyclists pose near the Alameda Avenue bridge in Denver, Colorado (1905).

Black inventors

From panniers to the tricycle, black inventors in the late 1800s made significant contributions to cycling.

Clockwise from top: In 1899, Jerry M. Certain, a black inventor from Tampa, FL, created the first quick release parcel carriers (currently known as panniers). The tricycle was invented by M.A. Cherry (pictured bottom right) in 1888. Cherry also made improvements to the design of velocipede, which was an early, pedal-less version of the modern bicycle.

While not the first person to invent the bicycle frame, Isaac R. Johnson (pictured bottom left) was the first black to invent and patent a bicycle frame in 1899 that could be folded or taken apart for easy storage.

Black soldiers

After the Civil War, the United States military formed several all-black infantry units, commonly known as “Buffalo Soldiers”. This included the creation of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps who were tasked with riding 1,900 miles from Montana to Missouri by bicycle.

While several European armies had already established the bicycle’s value for reconnaissance and courier services, the United States lagged behind.

The U.S. Army did not attempt any official experiments in bicycle transport until 1896, when the task was assigned to the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps.

In the summer of 1897, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps started a 1900- mile trek to St. Louis on single speed bikes made by Spaulding Bicycle Company. Although the bikes were the most modern available, loaded with gear and supplies they weighed almost 60lbs! In addition, each rider also carried a 10lb rifle along with 50 rounds of ammunition.

The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps conquered some of the roughest terrain in the country by bike, and completed the longest military bicycle training drill in U.S. history.

Bicycles for work and for fun

By the 20th century, the bicycle provided ample mobility opportunities for work and play.

From top left: Five female cyclists on an unprecedented ride from New York to Washington, D.C. (1928); newsboys of the Cleveland Call and Post (1935); a young woman and her bicycle at Shellir Island, NJ in 1901; James Austin Saunders became Plainfield, NJ’s first black police officer in 1891 and was a member of the department’s bicycle squad until his retirement in 1917. From bottom left: A child on a tricycle in the 1930s; cyclists in Denver pause for a photo in 1905; Kitty Knox bicycle racer and the first black to be accepted into the League of American Wheelmen (1893); and a young cyclist in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood (1930s).

Bicycles for athletes and activists

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the bicycle has been used as vehicles of empowerment by athletes, activists, and others.

Top row from left: Nelson “The Cheetah” Vails became the first black to medal in cycling during the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, CA; Young Bike 4 Life Peace Ride participants in Oakland, CA (2010); activist and Black History Ride organizer, Talib Abdullahi in Austin, TX (2021). Center row from left: A young former Secretary of State General Colin Powell going for a ride in the Bronx, NY (1950s); Ayesha McGowan, the first black U.S. women’s pro cyclist (2021); Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. riding to Long Island, NY (1967).Top row from left: Nelson “The Cheetah” Vails became the first black to medal in cycling during the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, CA; Young Bike 4 Life Peace Ride participants in Oakland, CA (2010); activist and Black History Ride organizer, Talib Abdullahi in Austin, TX (2021). Center row from left: A young former Secretary of State General Colin Powell going for a ride in the Bronx, NY (1950s); Ayesha McGowan, the first black U.S. women’s pro cyclist (2021); Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. riding to Long Island, NY (1967).

Celebs who go by bike

Bicycles remain a source of transportation and recreation for contemporary celebrities.

Pictured clockwise from top: Former U.S. president Barack Obama and Sasha Obama; tennis star Serena Williams often photographed on a bike with her dog; comedian and avid cyclist Kevin Hart and his son mountain biking; and actor Don Cheadle commuting.

Community Corner

  With nearly 100 chapters nationwide, Black Girls Do Bike (BGDB) promotes cycling among women of color who share a passion for bikes.

  BGDB champions efforts to introduce the joy of cycling to all women, but especially, women and girls of color. The Denver chapter can be found here.

 

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