A Great Unknown
Marshall Walter (“Major”) Taylor (November 26, 1878–June 21, 1932) was an American cyclist who won the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899, 1900, and 1901.
Taylor was the second black world champion in any sport, after boxer George Dixon. The Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a bicycle trail in Chicago are named in his honor. On July 24, 2006 the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, changed the name of part of Worcester Center Boulevard to Major Taylor Boulevard. His memory is honored not only for his athletic feats, but for his character. Taylor was a devout Christian who would not race on Sundays for much of his career, making his success all the more remarkable.
Taylor was born to a large family on a farm in rural Indiana to parents Gilbert Taylor and Saphronia Kelter, who had migrated from Louisville, Kentucky. He began as an entertainer at the age of thirteen. He was hired to perform cycling stunts outside a bicycle shop while wearing a soldier’s uniform, which resulted in the nickname “Major.”
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 Middletown, Connecticut, then a center of the United States bicycle industry with half a dozen factories and thirty bicycle shops, to work as a bicycle mechanic in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, owned by Birdie Munger who was to become his lifelong friend and mentor, and race for Munger’s team. His first east coast race was in a League of American Wheelmen one mile race in New Haven, where he started in last place but won. In late 1896, Taylor entered his first professional race in Madison Square Garden, where he lapped the entire field during the half-mile race. Although he is listed in the Middletown town directory in 1896, it is not known how long he still resided there after he became a professional racer. He eventually settled in Worcester, Massachusetts (where his nickname was naturally altered to “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.
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 also excluded blacks from membership. 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 youths 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.
He was reported to have between $25,000 and $30,000 when he returned to Worcester at the end of his career, but lost it to bad investments (including self-publishing his autobiography), persistent illness, and the stock market crash. His marriage over, he died a pauper in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, survived by one daughter. In 1948 his body was moved to a marked grave in a more prominent section of Mount Glenwood Cemetery thanks to funding by Frank Schwinn. A monument to his memory is being planned for Worcester, and even Indianapolis has finally confronted its racist past by naming the city’s bicycle track after Taylor.
Imagine getting respect for your skills and ability around the world, but at home, such skills are not even acknowledged, and such, you are treated inferior. I never heard of Major Taylor until recently, as it appears to be that he is a great black hero that is unknown by many … thus, spread the knowledge.