The “Color Line” in Cycling Was a Real Thing in 1896

There’s a long tradition in cycling: Stop and offer to help a cyclist with a mechanical issue, right? Any and every cyclist. No matter what color they may happen to be, right? Of course. Well, maybe not so much. At least back in 1896 when this happened …

A wheelman by the name of William Penn wrote a letter to the New York World that was published on July 12, 1896. The title of the article was “No Color Line In Bicycling” and here’s what Penn wrote:

“On Sunday last, while on the road, I saw a very nice-looking colored girl who was bending over her wheel and evidently in distress. I noticed that lots of wheelmen passed her without offering assistance. I dismounted, found she was in need of assistance, and helped her fix her wheel so she could proceed. As it happened, we were going in the same direction and so rode along together.”

OK, this seems like a pretty-good story so far, right? Not so fast. William Penn also wrote that he was riding with a friend when they came upon the “nice-looking colored woman.” Penn wrote that …

“When I stopped to offer her assistance … we had some words about it. I told him any true gentleman would help any lady in distress, regardless of color. He said [he] would help white ladies only. He left me. What would you have done, had you been in my place? Was I right or wrong?”

To settle the issue, the newspaper solicited the advice of Issac B. Potter, chief counsel of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.). Potter replied that he found Potter’s response “highly commendable. To have done less would have been more than discourteous; it would have been inhuman.”

But here’s the thing: At the time the L.A.W. did not allow Black men and/or women to be members. “I voted against that amendment and would be glad to see it abolished,” Potter said in the story. There definitely was a color line in cycling.

Crazy, horrible, right? But this was the way of the world in the 1890s. And beyond. And still today. Click here to read my previous story about when, how and why the L.A.W. banned Black cyclists. And read about how the great Major Taylor was treated (and mistreated).

Interested in cycling history? There’s plenty more in my eBook: The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to get the book.

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