“One A Day” Black History Month ~ Mr. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor

By Jueseppi B.

Nineteenth in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series is…..Mr. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor.

Before Lance Armstrong, there was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, World Champion Cyclist.

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (26 November 1878 – 21 June 1932) was an 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 TaylorCivil 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. Taylor’s father was employed in the household of a wealthy Indiana family, the Southards, as a coachman, where Taylor was also raised and educated. 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.

This period of living and learning at the Southard house lasted from the time he was eight until he was 12 when the Southards moved to Chicago and Taylor “was soon thrust into the real world.”

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. The name of the shop was Hay and Willits. The compensation was $6 a week, plus a free bike worth $35. Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform, hence the nickname “Major.”

When he was 13 in 1891, Taylor won his first race, an amateur event in Indianapolis. Two years later, in 1893 at age 15, Taylor beat the 1 mile (1.6 km) amateur track record where he was “hooted” and then barred from the track because of his color.

One of the first races that Taylor participated in occurred on September 26, 1891 when he was 13 and was recorded in The New York Times. The 10 miles (16 km) event took place in Brooklyn, New York on Ocean Parkway and was called the Citizen HandicapMajor Taylor listed his address as Worcester, Massachusetts and rode with a 1:30 handicap in a field of 200. There were nine scratch riders.

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’s first east coast race was in a League of American Wheelmen 1 mile (1.6 km) race in New Haven, where he started in last place but won.

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.

Beginning on December 5, 1896, and ending on December 12, Taylor participated in a six-day cycle race in Madison Square Garden where 5,000 people attended. The event was an indoor cycle meet and Taylor had achieved enough notoriety to be listed among the “American contestants” which included A. A. Hansen, the Minneapolis “rainmaker” and Teddy Goodman. Many “experts from abroad” participated such as Albert Schock of Switzerland, Frank Waller, Frank Forster and Ed von Hoeg of Germany, and B. W. Pierce of Canada. Several countries were represented including Scotland, Wales, France, England and Denmark.

The main feature of the meet was the six-day race, however, several other events were of “full interest”. Taylor entered the race and listed his address as South Brooklyn, New York. It was his first professional race and he won the final heat by 105 feet (32 m) over A. C. Meixwell of Philadelphia and E. C. Bald, scratch rider representing Syracuse, New York and riding a Barnes bicycle. Taylor lapped the entire field during the .5 miles (0.80 km) handicap race.

At the Blue Ribbon Meet of the Bostonian Cycle Club hosted on May 19, 1897, Taylor won first place in the 1 mile (1.6 km) open professional on a Comet bicycle.

He 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 AmericaAustralia, and Europe.

Major Taylor after he defeated “Jimmy” Michael at Manhattan Beach on August 27, 1898

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 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.

In late 1899, Taylor raced under the colors of the Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and won the 1 mile (1.6 km) sprint world championship by a lead of one wheel in a “thrilling” race at Montreal, Canada. He placed second in the 2 miles (3.2 km) sprint and won the .5 miles (0.80 km) championship.

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 GermanyEngland 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.

During February 1903, Taylor was competing in the Sydney (New South Wales) handicap for a $5,000 prize and the headline flashed worldwide was “Rich Cycle Race.”

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 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.

Taylor married Daisy V. Morris in Ansonia, Connecticut, on March 21, 1902. While in Australia in 1904, Taylor and his wife had a baby girl who was named Sydney, in honor of the town in which she was born.

Taylor was still breaking records in 1908 but age was starting to “creep up on him.” He finally quit the track in 1910 at the age of 32.

While Taylor was reported to have earned between $25,000 and $30,000 a year when he returned to Worcester at the end of his career, by the time of his death he had lost everything to bad investments (including self-publishing his autobiography), persistent illness, and the stock market crash. His marriage over, he died at age 53 on June 21, 1932—a pauper in Chicago‘s Bronzeville neighborhood, in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital—to be buried in an unmarked grave. He was survived by his daughter.

In 1948 a group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Schwinn Bicycle Co. (then) owner Frank W. Schwinn, organized the exhumation and relocation of Taylor’s remains to a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Bloom Township, Illinois, near Chicago. A monument to his memory stands in Worcester, and Indianapolis named the city’s bicycle track after Taylor. Taylor’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, died in 2005 at age 101; her survivors include a son and his five children.

Taylor was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989.

  • On July 24, 2006, the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, changed the name of part of Worcester Center Boulevard to Major Taylor Boulevard — where his memory is honored for his athletic feats as well as his character.
  • A bicycle, of unproven provenance was donated by Worcester resident Sy Farnsworth to the Worcester Historical Museum — with the understanding the bicycle may have belonged to Taylor.
  • The band Oh Yeah! performed a tribute song describing Major Taylor’s Iver Johnson bicycle and the racism he encountered, entitled “Major Taylor’s Grave”.
  • The first African-American cycling club named in honor of Major Taylor was organized in Columbus, Ohio, in 1979.
  • In East Palo Alto, California, a racially-mixed community that was until recently mostly black, hosts a Major Taylor Cycling Club.
  • Other cycling clubs dedicated to Major Taylor include the ‘Major Motion’ Cycling club in Los Angeles, the Major Taylor Cycling Club in Minnesota, the Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago in Chicago, IL and the Major Taylor Cycling Club of New Jersey.
  • Nike markets a sports shoe named after Major Taylor.
  • The company Soma Fabrications makes a set of bicycle handlebars called the Major Taylor Track Bar, a replica of Major Taylor’s 1930s bike handlebar.
  • The city of Columbus, Ohio renamed the Alum Creek Trail bicycle path [22] as the ‘Major Taylor Bikeway’[23] on September 3, 2010.

Major Taylor’s Autobiography: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, 1929 ISBN 0-8369-8910-4

Next In The “One A Day” Black History Series……Mr. Prince Hall

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