Taylor, Marshall W.
Marshall W. Taylor
Bicycle racer Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor may merit designation as the first African-American sports hero. In the face of the racist resistance that plagued African Americans in all fields of endeavor in the years around 1900, Taylor became a celebrity athlete whose exploits, in America and abroad, filled newspaper sports sections. He was likely the first black athlete to be sponsored by a corporation, and he was among the first to be recognized as a champion in his field. Taylor had various nicknames, including the "Colored Cyclone" and the "Worcester Whirlwind," after the Massachusetts city where he was based for much of his career. Beyond the many races he won and the reputation he gained as an athlete, Taylor set a long-lasting example for African-American youngsters as a role model who worked patiently to overcome the effects of racism and gained widespread popularity.
A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Marshall Walter Taylor was born on November 26, 1878. His grandparents had been slaves in Kentucky who had crossed into the free state of Indiana, and his father, Gilbert Taylor, put his skills with horses to work as a coach attendant for a well-off white Indianapolis family named Southard. Young Taylor and one of the Southard children, Daniel, became friends, and the family bought him his first bicycle. As Taylor began to mimic the ways of his upper-class benefactors, he grew more distant from his own family. When the Southards moved to Chicago, however, he was left to his own devices and had to fend for himself. At first he got a job delivering newspapers for five dollars a week.
He found that he was happier riding a bicycle, and he made extra money doing stunts on the street and passing the hat in front of a store called Hay and Willis. The store hired him as a custodian and bicycle demonstrator, giving him a new bicycle and a uniform that led to the nickname of Major. He was 13 at the time. Taylor soon began winning races. His success was impeded, however, because he was often barred from competing in heavily segregated Indiana. Fortunately, bicycle racing was at a peak of popularity, and a circuit of black-organized races allowed him to develop his skills. Taylor caught the eye of Louis "Birdie" Munger, a bicycle maker and former racer who saw in him a potential champion. Munger became his coach. By the mid-1890s, Taylor was winning races at both short and long distances, including a 75-mile race from Indianapolis to Matthews, Indiana.
He continued to experience frustrations at races. Taylor was sometimes banned from competition or, when allowed onto the track, was subjected to abuse from white riders—anything from being boxed in on a straightaway or having nails thrown in front of his wheels to direct physical attack. Frustrated by this state of affairs, Taylor and Munger move to the more liberal town of Worcester, Massachusetts (with a brief stop in Middletown, Connecticut) in 1895.
Taylor's performance continued to improve. He finished eighth in the first eastern competition he entered, a six-day endurance race at New York's Madison Square Garden in December of 1896. And, finding the doors of Worcester's YMCA open to him, he embarked on an all-around physical conditioning program. The results were visible in Taylor's race performance over the next several years, although he was consistently harassed and threatened when touring in Southern states and sometimes elsewhere. By 1898 he had set several world records, including a time of one minute, 41.4 seconds in a one-mile sprint from a standing start. The Sager Gear Company backed his tours, in return for which Taylor used the company's new chainless bicycle in competition—perhaps the first commercial sponsorship arrangement entered into by an African-American sportsman. By the end of the next year, he had shaved his one-mile time to one minute, 19 seconds. The year 1899 marked another milestone in Taylor's career: in a one-mile race in Montreal, Canada, he beat fellow Massachusetts cyclist Tom Butler and won the world championship at that distance. He thus became the second generally recognized black world champion in any sport, after Canadian-born boxer George Dixon.
Taylor capitalized on his fame, traveling to Europe between 1901 and 1904 and taking on the continent's best in one-on-one races. A devout Baptist, he refused to race on Sundays for many years. Though he declined to enter several world championships, he won many of his direct contests, beating a slew of European champions in 1901. American newspapers gave Taylor's races heavy coverage, and his celebrity grew. In 1902 he married Daisy Morris in Worcester, and they raised one daughter, Sydney. Her name came from the Australian city where she was born in 1904. By that time, Taylor's fame was truly international.
But Taylor himself was exhausted, not only by his constant touring schedule but also by the strain of dealing with racist attitudes. Observers, he wrote in his autobiography (as quoted in Notable Black American Men), did not "seem to realize the great mental strain that beset me in those races, and the utter exhaustion which I felt on the many occasions after I had battled under bitter odds against the monster prejudice, both on and off the track." Taylor took the years 1905 and 1906 off, returning to the racetrack in 1907. That year he was injured in a crash in Bordeaux, and though he recovered, he had lost a step to younger riders. After a victory over French champion Victor Dupré in 1909 and a race in Utah the following summer, Taylor retired at age 32.
Taylor was a relatively wealthy man at that point, with thousands of dollars of winnings saved. But the post-cycling phase of his life was not happy. He embarked on various ventures, mostly connected with automobile manufacturing, that sapped his fortune. During the 1920s he worked on his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, but he had to publish it and attempt to market it himself. The book sold poorly and he sank into poverty; his marriage eventually broke up. He lived at the YMCA in Chicago in his final years, suffering from heart and kidney problems. After he died on June 21, 1932, no one claimed his body, and he was buried at public expense. In 1948 a group of cycling history enthusiasts that included Frank Schwinn of the Schwinn bicycle-manufacturing firm learned the story of his end. He was disinterred and reburied on May 23, 1948, after a memorial service attended by sprinters Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens.
At a Glance …
Born on November 26, 1878, in Indianapolis, IN; died on June 21, 1932, in Chicago, IL; married Daisy Morris, 1902; children: Sydney. Education: Some private tutoring in home of Southard family, Indianapolis. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Employed as custodian, bicycle demonstrator, and bicycle riding teacher at Indianapolis department stores, 1892-95(?); moved to Worcester, MA, 1895; placed eighth in six-day endurance race, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1896; won world championship in one-mile race, lowered own world record in mile to 1:19, 1899; toured and competed in Europe, 1901-04; temporary retirement, 1905-06; returned to cycling but was injured in Bordeaux, France, 1907; retired from bicycle racing at age 32, 1910; unsuccessful manufacturing ventures, 1910s and 1920s; self-published autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, 1928.
Memberships: League of American Wheelmen, National Cycling Association.
Ritchie, Andrew, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, Bicycle Books, 1988.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Taylor, Marshall W. "Major," The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, repr. ed., Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Bicycling, June 2006.
Alston, Wilton D., "Who Is Major Taylor?," LewRockwell.com, www.lewrockwell.com/alston/alston16.html (June 7, 2007).
"Marshall Taylor, Cyclist and Sports Trail Blazer," African American Registry,www.aaregistry.com (June 7, 2007).
Major Taylor Society, www.majortaylor.com (June 7, 2007).
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