Fifty years before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, Major Taylor conquered bicycle racing despite death threats and deliberate injury.
At the turn of the 19th century, Major Taylor won international acclaim as the fastest human being in the world — the most admired, the most feared and the most hated bicycle racer of his time.
He was a blindingly fast cyclist when the sport was the most popular in America and Europe. He was African-American when Jim Crow ruled supreme.
Taylor kept his cool. He did not show hostility or aggression toward his tormentors. He wrote in his autobiography,
Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart.
Major Taylor was born Marshall Taylor on Nov. 26, 1878 outside Indianapolis, the grandson of slaves. His father, Gilbert Taylor, was a Civil War veteran who worked as a coachman for a wealthy white family, the Southards.
The Southards’ son Dan was Marshall’s age, and the two became close friends. The Southards then took Marshall Taylor into their home when he turned eight. They gave him an education and a bicycle – a luxury toy most children didn’t have.
But when he was about 13, the Southards moved to Chicago.
“I was dropped from the happy life of a ‘millionaire kid’ to that of a common errand boy, all within a few weeks,” he wrote in his autobiography. He rode his bicycle for a living, delivering newspapers, and he became an expert trick rider.
Tom Hay, a local bicycle shop owner, paid him to perform outside his shop for $6 a week and a free bicycle. He wore a soldier’s uniform while performing his tricks, thus earning the nickname ‘Major.’
Hay then entered his 13-year-old employee into a 10-mile bicycle race to further promote the store. Major Taylor had never raced, let alone raced 10 miles, but Hay told him just to ride up the road to please the crowd and drop out when he got tired.
Major Taylor won the race by six seconds and collapsed in a heap before receiving his first gold medal.
He entered more races.
Back then, bicycle racing offered opportunity to young men, even young men of color. Cycling champions could earn more than $20,000 a year when Ty Cobb didn’t make $5,000.
Bicycles offered speed and technological sophistication when few automobiles existed and the airplane didn’t. Bicycle racing was also dangerous, which added to the thrill for the thousands of spectators who paid to watch the sport in huge indoor arenas.
But for Major Taylor, it was the worst of times as well as the best of times. During the 1890s, twice as many lynchings took place during the decade as any other. He was excluded from bicycle clubs, forced to crash into fences and barred from the YMCA, where other racers trained. Other riders drove him into fences and threatened to kill him.
Taylor couldn’t join Indianapolis’s riding clubs. In 1896, Munger smuggled him into a whites-only race at the Capital City Cycling Club. He couldn’t compete officially, but racing officials could measure his time.
In the first heat, Major Taylor beat the track record for a mile by eight seconds. The crowd roared. He took a rest and then pedaled to the starting line for the one-fifth-mile race. He beat the world record held in a professional race by two-fifths of a second.
Local track officials, infuriated, barred Taylor from ever racing at that track again. Later that year, he went to New York to participate in a grueling six-day race at Madison Square Garden. He managed to finish in eighth place despite hallucinating that someone chased him with a knife.
The Worcester Whirlwind
Taylor decided to escape the bigotry of Indiana by moving to Worcester, Mass. The city then was a center of the bicycle industry with six bicycle factories and 30 bicycle shops. He worked as a mechanic in a bicycle factory owned by Birdie Munger.
In his autobiography, he wrote,
I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis.
His mother died in 1898, which led him to the Baptist faith. He became a devout member of the John Street Baptist Church in Worcester. He carried the New Testament with him, began each race with a prayer and refused to race on Sunday.
By then, he had turned pro and was considered the ‘most formidable racer’ in America. He was called the Worcester Whirlwind, and President Theodore Roosevelt was one of his biggest fans.
During his teens he finished first in 29 of 49 races, though the white racers often boxed him in to prevent him from winning. He held seven world records. No one came close to him.
In 1899, at 20, he won the world championship in cycling, 10 years before Jackie Robinson was even born. He was the first African-American to win the title of world champion in a sport.
European promoters were eager to bring the Worcester Whirlwind to European tracks. He refused because he didn’t want to race on Sunday when the most prestigious French events were held.
Eventually, when French promoters agreed to change the dates for major races, he gave in to the lure of the lucrative races and the potential escape from racism. After a race in Taunton, Mass., one of the white cyclists pulled him off his bicycle and choked him until he passed out. The culprit was fined $50, and other white racers donated money to help him pay the fine.
During a European tour in 1902 he beat the champions of Germany, France and England, winning 40 of 57 races. The French adored him, giving hum the nickname ‘le Negre Volant’ – the Flying Negro. French newspapers described a race he joined in Paris as the most heavily attended sporting event ever held in the city.
He continued to tour Europe and Australia, where he encountered racism from other American cyclists who raced Down Under. Australia wasn’t a complete waste, though; he had married Daisy Morris, and she gave birth to their daughter in Sydney. They named her Rita Sydney.
He retired in 1910, a wealthy man. He bought a house in Worcester’s tony Columbus Park neighborhood. The neighbors didn’t want him moving in and offered him $2,000 over the price of his house to move out. He refused.
A Wonderful Day
During his career, Major Taylor was said to have earned between $25,000 and $30,000. But he lived large and lost his fortune to bad investments, the stock market crash and medical bills. He suffered recurrent bouts of shingles throughout the rest of his life.
His wife left him, he lost touch with his daughter and he had to sell his house to pay off his debts. During that troubled time he spent six years writing his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. He explained why in the forward:
I am writing my memoirs…in the spirit calculated to solicit simple justice, equal rights and a square deal for the posterity of my downtrodden but brave people, not only in athletic games and sports, but in every honorable game of human endeavor.
He couldn’t find a publisher for the book, so he published it himself and sold it from the trunk of his car – with little luck. Eventually he moved to Chicago, where he lived alone in a YMCA.
And still, he wrote, he felt no bitterness. “I felt I had my day,” he wrote, “and a wonderful day it was too.”
He died in Chicago on June 21, 1932 at the age of 53, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
The Rest of the Story
In 1948, a group of old bicycle stars learned of Taylor’s fate. They approached the owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company about giving him a proper burial. Schwinn paid for workers to move his body to a more respected section of the Mount Glenwood Cemetery and provided a headstone that said,
World’s champion bicycle racer — who came up the hard way — without hatred in his heart — an honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean living gentlemanly athlete, a credit to his race who always gave out his best — gone but not forgotten.
As cycling bounced back as a sport, so did the fame of Major Taylor.
Bicycle clubs named after Major Taylor formed in Columbus, Atlanta and Chicago.
On July 24, 2006, Worcester, Mass., changed the name of part of Worcester Center Boulevard to Major Taylor Boulevard. Two years later, the city erected a statue of Taylor outside the public library.
Nike markets a sports shoe named after Major Taylor.
For an online exhibit on Major Taylor, click here.
This story about Major Taylor was updated in 2020.