Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor was an African-American cyclist who won the world 1 mile (1.6 km) track cycling championship in 1899 after setting numerous world records and overcoming racial discrimination.
Taylor was the first African-American athlete to achieve the level of world champion and only the second black man to win a world championship—after Canadian boxer George Dixon.
Taylor was the son of Gilbert Taylor, Civil War veteran and Saphronia Kelter, who had migrated from Louisville, Kentucky, with their large family to a farm in rural Indiana. He was one of eight children, five girls and three boys. When Taylor was a child, his father would bring him to work. The employer had a son, Dan Southard, who was the same age, and the two boys became close friends. Taylor later moved in with the family and was able to live a more advantaged life than his parents could provide for him.
At age 12, Taylor received his first bicycle from the Southards and became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop owner, Tom Hay, hired him to stage exhibitions and perform cycling stunts outside his bicycle shop.Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform, hence the nickname “Major.”
Major Taylor won his first significant race in 1895 at age 16. The 75 miles (121 km) road race, near his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, “came amid the racial threats of his white competitors.” Shortly afterward, he relocated to Massachusetts with the help of his benefactor, Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, who was to become his lifelong friend and mentor, to a more tolerant area of the country.
As an African-American, Taylor was banned from bicycle racing in Indiana once he started winning and made a reputation as “The Black Cyclone.” In 1896, he moved from Indianapolis to Worcester, Mass., then a center of the United States bicycle industry with half a dozen factories and 30 bicycle shops, to work as a bicycle mechanic in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, owned by Louis D. “Birdie” Munger where he was a racer for Munger’s team. Taylor first worked for Munger in Indianapolis and along the line, Munger “made up his mind to make Taylor a champion.”
Taylor turned professional in 1896 at the age of 18 and soon emerged as the “most formidable racer in America.” One of his biggest supporters was President Theodore Roosevelt who kept track of Taylor throughout his 17-year racing career.
Taylor eventually settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, (where the newspapers called him “The Worcester Whirlwind”), marrying there and having a daughter, although his career required him to spend a large amount of time traveling in America, Australia, and Europe.
By 1898, he held seven world records at distances from .25 miles (0.40 km) to 2 miles (3.2 km) and he placed first in 29 of 49 races in which he competed. No one else came close to that record. Taylor was entitled to recognition as a national champion but formation of a new cycling league that year “clouded” his claim to the title.
During 1899 he won the world championship, preceded only by boxing bantamweight George Dixon as a black world champion in any sport.
In one six-week period in 1899, Taylor established seven world records. These included the .25 miles (0.40 km), .33 miles (0.53 km), .5 miles (0.80 km), .66 miles (1.06 km), .75 miles (1.21 km), 1 mile (1.6 km) and the 2 miles (3.2 km). He did the mile from a standing start in 1:41, a record that stood for 28 years.
After the 1899 world championship, many claims were made that the whole thing was a farce because Taylor had “not competed with the strongest riders.” The world records, however, showed the record and were impossible to dismiss. No other rider that year had come close to his fast performances and the “range and variety” of his victories which included 22 first places in major championship races around the country, the League of American Wheelmen Championship which he won on points, world champion in Montreal, and the defense of his own world record in two “strenuous record-breaking campaigns.
Earl Kiser, who was nicknamed the “Little Dayton Demon,” raced for the Stearns Yellow Fellow team during the same period as Taylor. Kiser became a two-time world cycling champion and competed all across Europe in the late 1890s. Kiser gave support to Taylor after he was barred from most national races. Kiser petitioned to have him included and Taylor went on to become the world sprint champion in 1899 and 1900. He was the first African-American to win a world title.
Taylor participated in a European tour in 1902 where he entered 57 races and won 40 of them, defeating the champions of Germany, England and France. Besides racing in Europe, Taylor also competed in Australia and New Zealand, although because he was very religious, never on Sunday. He always carried a catechism and began each race with a silent prayer and refused to compete on the Sabbath.
Although he was greatly celebrated abroad, particularly in France, Taylor’s career was still held back by racism, particularly in the Southern states where he was not permitted to compete against Caucasians. The League of American Wheelmen for a time excluded blacks from membership. Other prominent bicycle racers of the era, such as Tom Cooper and Eddie Bald, often cooperated to ensure Taylor’s defeat. During his career he had ice water thrown at him during races, and nails scattered in front of his wheels, and was often boxed in by other riders, preventing the sprints to the front of the pack at which he was so successful.
In his autobiography, he reports actually being tackled on the race track by another rider, who choked him into unconsciousness but received only a $50 fine as punishment. Nevertheless, he does not dwell on such events in the book; rather it is evident that he means it to serve as an inspiration to other African-Americans trying to overcome similar treatment.
Taylor retired at age 32 in 1910, saying he was tired of the racism. His advice to African-American youth wishing to emulate him was that while bicycle racing was the appropriate route to success for him, he would not recommend it in general; and that individuals must find their own best talent.
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