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THE AFROWEGIAN

The Fastest Bicycle Rider

in the World.

presents....

MAJOR TAYLOR

a cycling legend

BORN IN 1878

in rural Indiana - one of eight children

GIFTED A BICYCLE AT AGED 12

Aged 15 the Major set a new amateur record

BANNED FOR BEING BLACK

cycling bodies tried to exclude him, but the public flocked to his races

MOVED TO EUROPE TO GREAT ACCLAIM

the Major proved himself to be one of the greatest racers of his age

The Major Taylor Story – a rise to stardom despite the odds

Major Taylor’s story is of a rise to stardom despite the odds. He was as big a star as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan in his day, but his grandfather was a slave. In the Jim Crow era of strict racial segregation in America, Taylor had to fight entrenched prejudice just to get to the starting line. He faced closed doors and open hostility with remarkable dignity. But nothing could stand in the way of this poor farm boy, born to a US Civil War veteran, who became The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.

Why Major, well why not?

Marshall Taylor was born in 1878 and raised in rural Indiana. He was one of eight children born to Civil War veteran Gilbert Taylor.

Gilbert was employed as a coachman to a wealthy local family with a son, Daniel, the same age as Marshall. Daniel was an only child. The boys became friends and Marshall was formally engaged as a playmate for his father’s employer’s son.

 

 

This wasn’t unusual and gave Marshall access to a high-quality private education that would have been denied to people of his race and class at the time.

This arrangement lasted from ages 8 to 12 ending when the ‘host’ family – The Southards – moved to Chicago. As a parting gift they gave Marshall a bicycle, an expensive and luxurious item back then. Marshall loved it and spent all his spare time on it developing his gift for trick bicycle riding.

 

As a teen he found work in local bike shops where he performed bicycle tricks and acrobatics for crowds in a military-style costume which earned him the name ‘Major’.

There was a cycling revolution taking place during the 1890s. Cycling was becoming bigger than baseball and velodromes were springing up all across America.

Indianapolis was popular with cyclists and many of the greats competed there, including the most famous cyclist in the world at the time – Arthur Zimmerman. Meeting Zimmerman the day before he set a new world record at the cycle track in Indianapolis had a profound effect on the young Major.

However blacks were banned from amateur cycling in the US from 1894 which stimulated the growth of black cycling clubs and races. This gave Taylor the opportunity to prove his ability. Aged 15 the Major set a new amateur record after which he was promptly banned…. for being black.

These early victories convinced his boss, the former racing star and bicycle manufacturer Louis “Birdie” Munger that he should take the teen-age Taylor with him to Worcester, where he was setting out to open a factory.  Munger became not only a father figure to Taylor but also his racing manager, standing up for Taylor in the face of widespread racism. In the more liberal progressive atmosphere in the north of the US, Taylor’s cycling career was able to flourish.

The story of the famous six-day race – clip courtesy of ESPN

He made his move from amateur to professional in spectacular fashion competing in the famous six-day race at Madison Square Gardens. The race sponsors at first refused to allow Taylor to participate, suggesting that the place for a black man was ‘to shine the shoes of white people on Fifth Avenue’. But gradually the sponsors — who weren’t making much money in the less-popular sport of baseball, decided that the prospect of a race of whites against a single black would draw headlines and enormous crowds. So they gave him a license to participate in the six-day race, figuring that he, like many of the contestants, would drop out after a couple of days.

Major actually made his professional debut in a preliminary race before this main event. It was here he first faced and beat a rider who was to become one of his greatest rivals – Eddie ‘Cannon’ Bald. Widespread newspaper coverage of Taylor’s victory and the historic participation of a black racer in the main event helped swell the number of spectators from 5000 witnessing the heats, to a capacity crowd of more than 12000. NYC was in the midst of a newspaper circulation war and as a result the six-day race received immense coverage. In a twist of fate, Bald didn’t participate in the six-day race but he did… fire the starter’s pistol.

During his professional cycling career in the US, cycling bodies tried to exclude him, changing their rules as needed to prevent him from competing. On the track Taylor was continually subjected to underhand tactics designed to hold him back or injure him. Often, united in their opposition to him, other riders would box him in. The all white referees often turned a blind eye to this, and the Major’s protests fell on deaf ears.

The prevailing notion of the time was that whites were superior. Taylor’s success disproved this.

By the end of 1898, aged 20, Taylor held seven world records, at distances ranging from ¼ to 2 miles. He was also the most hated, most admired, most controversial, most talked about but ultimately the most famous bicycle racer in America at the turn of the 20th Century.

Racist opposition had constantly threatened him and slowed his progress. The deviousness of his white rivals had denied him for two consecutive years, the possibility of becoming champion of America. But his speed, courage and determination along with his warm but confident personality made him into an extremely popular and highly marketable star in the show-business world of bicycle racing…….

So for the sake of his career and his sanity he left for Europe. Taylor took Europe by storm, unhampered by the colour line that frustrated his achievements back in the US. He drew capacity crowds eager to catch a glimpse of The Flying Negro – ‘Le Negre Volant’

The crowning events of his first European tour were his races against Edmond Jacquelin in Paris. Jacquelin was the champion of Europe. In the months before the races with Major Taylor he had suffered a couple of humiliating defeats, so Edmond was out to prove himself. In an exhibition of black pride, Taylor strode onto the track wearing an African cloak.

Jacquelin beat Taylor in their first race, winning two out of three heats. He then caused an uproar when he circled the track thumbing his nose. But Taylor would have his revenge in a re-match a few days later.

Taylor was welcomed as a hero in France and went on to beat every European champion. In his triumphal tour of Europe, he raced against the Continent’s best riders, coming away with 42 firsts, 11 seconds, three thirds and one fourth prize. It was the climax of his career.

Over the following two years Taylor continued to travel the globe drawing capacity crowds wherever he raced. Typical of his star status was the fact that in  December 1903 he was met by a flotilla of fans at Sydney harbour.

However the ‘Major’ wasn’t welcomed with open arms everywhere he travelled. This inspired him to write his autobiography – The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World – which you can read here.

Taylor considered his struggle to be more than personal as you can see from one of his poem’s:-

“A fair field and no favour now as we begin,
A square desk for all and may the best man win;
A fair field and no favour is our appeal,
A square deal will conquer in every field.”

When ‘Major’ Taylor retired from racing in 1910 he was one of the richest black men in America. But his fortunes withered as a series of business failures bankrupted him forcing him to sell off his possessions and eventually his home. Taylor’s financial decline echoed the decline in popularity of track racing. The Depression and the exploding popularity of the car brought about the closure of lots of velodromes and track racing all but disappeared.

In 1930 a broken and ailing Taylor left Worcester for Chicago. For two years he lived there at the YMCA. He lived on handouts and sporadic sales of his self-penned autobiography. In April 1932 he underwent heart surgery. Two months later he died an impoverished and forgotten man. His body lay unclaimed for a week and he was buried in a public grave.

Was this a victory for prejudice and intolerance?

The ‘Major’ could have been a spokesperson for tolerance and clean living, someone to encourage children of all colours to persevere. But hopefully, as his story becomes more well-known, the world will move towards acknowledging the value of equality, diversity and inclusion.

 

Notes & sources:

Lynne Tolman at the Major Taylor Association, Andrew Ritchie and Fred Noland