Taylor, Marshall Walter ("Major")

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TAYLOR, Marshall Walter ("Major")

(b. 26 November 1878 near Indianapolis, Indiana; d. 21 June 1932 in Chicago, Illinois), world's fastest bicycle racer and the first American-born African American to become a premier sports figure.

Taylor was born to Gilbert Taylor, a horseman, and Sophronia Kelter. He grew up in rural Indiana, close to the growing, industrial city of Indianapolis. Taylor's parents were poor farmers, descendants of slaves who had made their way to the free state of Indiana before or during the Civil War. Gilbert Taylor fought for the North in an African-American regiment during the war and later bought the small farm where he eked out a living for his wife and eight children. When Taylor was eight years old, his father took a job as a coachman for the Southards, a wealthy white family living in Indianapolis.

The small, bright, and charming Taylor became the playmate and surrogate brother of Daniel Southard, a child his own age. Until about the age of twelve, Taylor was afforded all the privileges and luxuries the Southards provided for their own son—including his own bicycle. Taylor became a favorite among the well-off white children of the neighborhood, partially because of his trick riding skills. When Taylor's benefactors moved to Chicago, the budding cyclist landed a job at the Indianapolis bicycle repair shop of Hay and Wilits. He acquired the nickname "Major" because he wore a brassy soldier's uniform and a military cap while performing cycling tricks near the storefront.

In 1882 or 1883 Taylor met Louis "Birdie" Munger, a bicycle racing star and cycle manufacturer who was to become Taylor's employer, lifelong adviser, and friend. The experienced cyclist recognized Taylor's potential, telling people that the young boy would one day be a champion. In 1895 Taylor followed Munger to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Munger opened a factory and encouraged his protégé to become a professional rider. Taylor competed in a number of integrated amateur races in the Northeast, and at eighteen he registered as a professional racer, the first full-time African-American cyclist eligible to win cash prizes.

For the next eight years, Taylor raced on the national circuit. By the end of the 1897 season he had established a reputation marked by a series of wins against the reigning national champion, Eddie Bald, by many cash prizes, and by racism, which included death threats. As a result of his mother's death in 1897, Taylor committed himself to the Baptist faith, which prompted him to forgo Sunday races—a decision that cost him huge sums of money.

In spite of the racist climate in the South, which prohibited Taylor from training there, he established two world records in 1898. In August, Taylor defeated international Welsh star Jimmy Michael in the one-mile, paced, standing start race, setting a new world record of 41.4 seconds. He also set the coveted one-mile, paced, flying start record using a new chainless-gear bicycle. By the end of the year, Taylor held seven world records for races ranging from a quarter mile to two miles.

Taylor's amazing successes continued in 1899, when he won the world professional sprint championship at Queen's Park track in Montreal. He also won the U.S. national championship, and by the end of the year he held 22 first places and had defended his own 1-mile world record twice, reaching a speed of 45.56 miles per hour.

Following the purchase of a house in an affluent white neighborhood in Worcester, Taylor accepted a contract to compete in France. During his four-month European tour in 1901, Taylor rode in nearly every important European capital, beating champions from England, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. Out of twenty-four races, he won eighteen. According to biographer Andrew Ritchie, Taylor became the unofficial "black American ambassador to Europe." Unfortunately, upon Taylor's return to the United States in July 1901, he was met with the same animosity and racism that marked his earlier days.

Taylor married the well-educated Daisy Victoria Morris on 21 March 1902; they had one child. Taylor returned to Europe shortly after the wedding, and for the next two years raced to the height of his international career. Everywhere he went Taylor was treated as a celebrity—especially in Australia, where he and his new wife were greeted by hundreds of boats honking and waving U.S. flags. Taylor miraculously crossed Australia's strict color line and was invited to speak from church pulpits. He and Daisy enjoyed the country so much that they named their only child Sydney after its capital city.

In 1902 Taylor began talking of retirement, but lucrative offers kept him riding until 1909, when he made his sixth and final European tour. The aging athlete lost several times, but the tour ended with a victory in France, where Taylor beat Victor Dupré, the reigning French and world champion.

Taylor retired at age thirty-two. Without a steady income the Taylors could not maintain the standard of living to which they had grown accustomed. Taylor and Daisy were forced to sell their house in Worcester. In 1928, while fading into anonymity, Taylor self-published his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World (1928). Taylor found it difficult to remain in the city where he had once been known as a wealthy and successful athlete and moved to Chicago alone. He lived at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and sold copies of his book door-to-door—a practice he continued until his death. The Taylors divorced in 1930. Taylor died in the charity ward of a Chicago hospital due to a weak heart, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery thirty miles south of Chicago. In 1948, however, Schwinn Bicycle Company owner Frank Schwinn, along with other professional racers, moved Taylor's grave to a more prominent site, the Memorial Garden of the Good Shepherd, in Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Chicago. In 1982 Indianapolis opened a cycling track in Taylor's name—the Major Taylor Velodrome.

Taylor lived the life of an unsung hero. He has received little attention even though his career spanned three continents, earned him numerous world records, and proved him to be the fastest cyclist in the world.

Taylor's autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World (1928), sheds light on numerous aspects of the cyclist's life, personality, and career from an early age until his retirement in 1910. Andrew Ritchie's comprehensive and fascinating biography, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer(1988), includes information from hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, scrapbooks, and interviews with Taylor's daughter. For a book with substantial references to Taylor, see Rebecca Chalmers Barton, Witness for Freedom: Negro-Americans in Autobiography (1948).

Valerie Linet

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