It was never free and easy for you. But you did it anyway. And that’s why everyone should know your story: Born to a free Black father and white mother in Boston in 1874, when cycling was bursting out of its infancy, you fell in love with it. However, a woman—one of mixed race, no less—had no business on a bicycle. People wanted you to know your place, to focus on being a seamstress, but you refused to be limited. Rejecting women’s tricycles, you insisted on riding a man’s two-wheeled bike, and designed your own pantaloons for riding instead of the standard cumbersome skirts.
In 1894, the year after you joined the League of American Wheelmen, the national organization voted to become whites-only (a stipulation that wasn’t officially reversed until 1999). In the face of segregation and discrimination, you persevered. When I learned that you regularly completed century rides and finished near the front of the pack at coed races, I practically pumped my fist in the air. You even showed up at the League’s big annual meeting in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1895, causing a scene as you showed off fancy bike turns outside the hotel and danced with a white man at the social. Despite the protests from delegates who fought to have you removed from the event, you would not stand down.
When you died of kidney disease, at just 26 years old, the fight was long from won. Still, you had made your mark. You pieced together your own convention, pursuing joy despite the barriers. This is how a pioneer behaves: moving forward, regardless.
And for all of it, I thank you. We—the outsiders, the marginalized, the dismissed—we thank you for riding against the color bar; for asserting your right to fun, community, and exhilaration; for broadening the boundaries, clearing a path for other women of color like me to chase our joy, pedaling on our own terms.
Nicole Blades is a novelist and freelance journalist who writes about motherhood, identity, and culture. Her second novel, The Thunder Beneath Us (Kensington), will be published in November 2016.