Before Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and the Williams Sisters there was another Black phenomenon but few Blacks have ever heard of him. His name was synonymous with speed. They called him Major Taylor.
Accounts of his feats stretched the globe. Still, most history books have overlooked Major Taylor. As a tribute to a cycling great, this is his story.
Major Taylor – Paris 1908. Photos courtesy Major Taylor Association
Raised in the Indianapolis home of a wealthy white family, that employed his father, Marshall Walter Taylor was destined for greatness. At a young age Taylor was given the gift of a bicycle from the family. In his free time, Taylor would spend hours out back teaching himself to ride the bicycle.
Day in and day out Taylor would practice balancing perfectly on the bike. He soon became so skilled at the art and took his riding a step further. Taylor began teaching himself stunts. He would ride without hands, stand on the bike seat, and position himself on the bike’s top tube.
Spectators would often find Taylor cycling through town performing his tricks. Crowds would gather around Taylor in awe of his athleticism. Taylor had a knack for making cycling look easy and fun.
Bike shop owner, Tom Hay, heard the crowds clamoring around Taylor and offered the young sensation a job. He offered to pay Taylor to perform his stunts each day in front of Hay’s bike shop. The show would draw traffic into the store and increase interest in cycling. Taylor accepted Hay’s offer and was given a red military uniform to wear.
The arrangement was a perfect match. Taylor got to do what he enjoyed and the store got an increase in revenue. Spectators later nicknamed the boy wonder ‘Major Taylor’ because of his crisp uniform.
Looking for new challenges, Taylor entered his first bike race in 1892. He wins. Little does Taylor know that this will be the first step in string of events that will prove him the fastest cyclist in the world.
In 1895 Taylor is signed by a race manager, former pro cyclist Louis Munger. The two move to Worcester, Massachusetts where Munger planned to open a bicycle factory. Taylor continues to race promoting cycling along with Munger’s bicycle company.
In August 1896 Taylor travels back to Indy for a race. There he unofficially breaks two world records. One for paced and one for unpaced 1-mile rides. Angered that a black could surmount such a feat, Taylor gets banned the Indy race track and the account of his race time gets buried.
But Taylor keeps on trekking. Later that December Taylor enters his first professional race – a six day endurance race at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He takes 8th place.
Taylor hones his racing technique and continues traveling the country and racing. Often a victim of corrupt practices, other riders would physically block or “pocket” Taylor in, attempting to keep him from winning. Still, two years later in 1898 Taylor holds 7 world records for speed. One record being the 1-mile record in which Taylor completed one mile in 1 minute 41.4 seconds.
In August 1899 Taylor travels to Montreal, Canada for the 1-Mile championship race, and wins. At age 21 he becomes the second Black to be called World Champion of any sport behind boxer George Dixon’s 1891 title bout.
Two months later Taylor beats his own 1-mile record by 22 seconds, knocking the fastest 1-mile down to 1 minute 19 seconds.
In September 1900 Taylor is allowed to compete in an arena he had been previously barred from because of his skin, The National Championship Series. He takes a series of races and becomes the American sprint champion, the fastest cyclist in the U.S.
Taylor and his team sets out to compete against the top cyclists in the world. From March to June 1901 competes throughout Europe. Taylor beats every European champion he races.
In 1902 Taylor meets and marries Victoria Morris, of New York. They later birth a daughter, Rita Sydney Taylor (brown). Taylor continues cycling. He races in Australia, the United States, and New Zealand.
Though disliked because of his skin, no one could deny his speed. Taylor countered racism with a quiet dignity. He saved his energy for the race track.
Throughout his life Taylor promoted clean living . He often quoted principles to live by known as the ‘Dozen Don’ts’
Taylor left the track in 1910, retiring at the age of 32. He later started several businesses. Each failed depleting his savings.
Broke, estranged from his wife, and becoming ill, Taylor penned his own autobiography titled ‘The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.’ Some original copies are still around today. They are valued at upwards of $500 a copy.
In 1930, a homeless Taylor drives himself to Chicago to bunk at a YMCA shelter. He spends his remaining years selling copies of his self-published book as a means of income.
On June 21, 1932 Major Taylor dies at 53 inside the charity ward of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
Sixteen years later a group of minority cyclists, funded by the Schwinn Bicycle Co., had Taylor’s body exhumed and reburied at the Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Illinois.
Today the Major Taylor Association, Inc, a non-profit corporation is looking to honor the life of Major Taylor with the erection of a two-sided statue in Taylor’s honor.
The Major Taylor Association must raise $250,000 for the project. As of September 2005 they’ve received $69,000 in donations. To donate contact the Major Taylor Association.