30 Years After the Abolition of Slavery, Major Taylor Made History on a Bicycle
More than half a century before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the sport of baseball, Marshall “Major” Taylor made history on a bicycle. One of the most talented professional cyclists of his time, Taylor was also the world’s first African-American sports celebrity.
At the Start
Though during his career Taylor would become widely regarded as the world’s most formidable sprinter, he first earned his place in history by making it to the start line: he was a black man racing in all-white events at a time when African Americans were denied many basic liberties in the U.S. Under “Jim Crow” laws, black people couldn’t use the same public facilities as white people or go to the same schools, and while African Americans had the legal right to vote, they were often prevented from doing so.
Major Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1878, only 13 years after slavery had been abolished. Taylor’s grandfather had been a slave, and his father had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Taylor came to be called “Major,” a nickname he would keep for the rest of his life, when he worked for an Indianapolis bike shop doing tricks on bikes to entertain customers while wearing a soldier’s uniform. Taylor wrote in his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, that the store owner hired him after Taylor’s first impromptu demonstration of his tricks in front of the store caused so much congestion on the street outside that police were called to open it up for traffic.
This self-taught “expert trick and fancy rider” entered his first local bike race at the age of 13—and won it. A few years later he was beating track records set by top professionals. At 16, Taylor started a 75-mile race secretly, letting the field ride ahead before joining them. When the other riders threatened him, Taylor rode ahead of the field, giving it everything he was worth. He finished more than an hour ahead of the second-place rider and won the grand prize of a house lot in Matthews, Indiana. He immediately ran home and presented the deed to the lot to his mother. (He hadn’t told her about the race beforehand, afraid she would worry. She was still worried after the fact, though, and made him promise never to race such a long distance again.)
In December 1896, Taylor’s first pro race was the famous six-day race on the velodrome in Madison Square Garden. At that time, riders in the event competed individually, circling the track for six days at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. In a brutal test of will as much as fitness, the riders battled hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, and physical injury from the event’s frequent crashes. The winner was the man who completed the most distance over the allotted time, so competitors took only short breaks to eat and sleep. Taylor’s longest stretch of continuous riding was 18 hours. After five days of racing, extreme fatigue caused Major Taylor to drop out of the race—he hallucinated that someone was chasing him with a knife—but he placed eighth overall. Taylor had covered 1,787 miles on the track, roughly the distance from New York City to Austin, Texas.
The Struggle for Success
During his long career, Taylor competed in many race formats but was at his best as a sprinter. He set seven world records in distances ranging from the quarter-mile to 2 miles; one record would stand for 20 years.
Dubbed with monikers like the “Black Cyclone” and “Worcester Whirlwind,” Taylor traveled across the world. In Europe, where he was a crowd favorite, he raced for multiple seasons; in his first season racing in Europe, he won 40 of the 57 events he was entered in. In Australia, journalists seeing Taylor’s finishing sprint for the first time referred to it as a “revelation.”
But while Taylor earned many friends and a dedicated following (even President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid fan), Taylor often faced intense hatred and racism—he called this his “bitterest foe” from the moment he first encountered discrimination as a child.
“I made all of my races a continuous battle, not so much of speed as of wits—the odds being against me as I had to work single handed against all of the others who combined to bring about my defeat,” Taylor wrote.
Some of Taylor’s white competitors refused to ride against him. Others threatened him with violence, attacked him, or purposefully tried to “throw him” in races by elbowing him or running him off the track. In race tactics (some of them explicitly against the rules), riders frequently teamed up against him. At times officials ruled unfairly against Taylor as well, and some race organizers and track owners barred Taylor from events or venues—though they did so to their own detriment, as Taylor’s presence was always sure to draw larger crowds.
Taylor rarely stood down because of a challenge or threat, however. On and off the track, Taylor sometimes fought as much for the principle as for the win.
After not being permitted to stay in the same hotel as his fellow racers before a race in St. Louis, Missouri, for example, Taylor decided to leave before the next event took place in the town of Cape Girardeau. He was promised by the race organizer that he would be given equal treatment at the hotels and restaurants for that next race, however, and “reluctantly signed an entry blank for that fixture.” But when Taylor arrived at the promised hotel, the race organizer said circumstances had changed and Taylor would again stay with a black family in the neighborhood, sleeping and dining separately from the white racers.
“When I informed him that this was not in accordance with our gentleman’s agreement he again stated he was sorry but the new arrangement would have to stand,” Taylor said. Taylor stayed with his black hosts overnight but made his way to the train station in the morning and purchased a ticket for home.
While Taylor waited on the platform, the race organizer, an official, and several of Taylor’s fellow competitors approached him. “They told me that if I failed to ride in the races that afternoon they would see to it that I was barred forever from the racing tracks of the country. I replied I was not interested in the future but was deeply concerned with the present, and since Mr. Dunlop had not lived up to his agreement with me I felt free to absent myself from the championship meet that afternoon and was going to do so regardless of consequences.”
True to their word, Taylor’s detractors worked to have him barred for life from U.S. competition, but in the end, Taylor was ordered to pay a fine of $500. Taylor refused to pay the fine, preferring to quit the sport if he had to, but a sponsor who wanted Taylor to race his company’s bike in the following season wrote a check and settled the fee.
In spite of his constant struggle, Taylor won race after race. Prejudice caused Taylor “to fight all the harder.” He bested the rivals who’d attempted to belittle him, head to head and wheel to wheel. He won national championships and world championships, becoming the second black athlete to win a world championship in a sport (George Dixon, a Canadian boxer, was the first). Crowds gave Taylor standing ovations. The press sung his praises. Today some of the very tracks and towns that barred Major Taylor from competition are now named in his honor or have installed monuments dedicated to him.
Taylor retired from cycling in 1910 at the age of 32. His net worth would have been well over 2 million dollars today, but by 1930 Taylor had lost all of his earnings as a result of the stock market crash, bad investments, illness, and the expenses incurred in publishing his autobiography, The Fastest Cyclist in the World. In 1932, at the age of 53, he died of a heart attack.
Major Taylor’s legacy lives on today in all athletes who compete in their sports with pride, courage, and strength, and is a particularly worthy inspiration for those who choose to make riding bikes their passion.
In his autobiography, Taylor writes: “I know that a good many champions have entertained the thought that the more they discourage youngsters, the longer they would reign. However, this theory never impressed me, and I always made it a point to give youths the benefit of my experience in bicycle racing. I do this for a two-fold reason. First of all it was through the kindness of Louis D. (Birdie) Munger, now of Springfield, Massachusetts, that I became inspired and rode to American and world’s championships. Secondly, I always felt that good sportsmanship demanded that a champion in any line of sport should always be willing to give a helping hand to all worthy boys who aspire to succeed him.”
Kathryn Hunter is a freelance writer and former professional bike racer based in Austin, TX. She is the mother of two lifelong woom riders, ages 4 and 7. You can catch up with Kathryn on her website.