Who Is Major Taylor?

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Sixteen years after he died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave, a group of former professional bicycle racers — with money donated by Schwinn Bicycle Company owner Frank Schwinn — had his remains exhumed and placed in a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery with a bronze plaque that says: "World’s champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous, and God-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete.  A credit to his race who always gave out his best.  Gone but not forgotten."

~ taken from the Major Taylor Association website

Sometimes a small group of people, with similar interests, and suitable motivation, can accomplish a great deal on their own. Such is the team of bicycle racers who wear shirts that provocatively ask, "Who is Major Taylor?"

As a runner, biker, and something of an amateur historian, I place a high value in knowing about black heroes. If you had asked me the question above only a few months ago, I can assure you I wouldn't have had a faint clue to the answer. This essay is intended to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else. The story of Major Taylor, dating from the late 1800's United States, is one well-worth repeating and sharing with anyone willing to listen and learn. It is my pleasure to present a small glimpse of it here. Much of what I share here is from the wonderful work of Lynne Tolman, a board member of the nonprofit Major Taylor Association.

I found out about this sports hero — and I do not use that term loosely — as I sat in a hospital waiting room while my wife underwent surgery. (Talk about strange serendipity.) As a runner/biker/hiker I was naturally drawn to a copy of Bicycling Magazine, and found this interesting piece about Taylor. I would place Major Taylor in the broader category of American hero, versus just limiting him to sports only. When a person overcomes great odds and excels as Taylor did, this is a reasonable designation.

Humble Beginnings

Taylor's life began as would be expected of almost any black person of his era. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, as Marshall Taylor, he was one of eight children. His father was a coachman, employed by a wealthy white family. As luck would have it, one of the children of his father's employer took a liking to Taylor and eventually this led to Taylor getting a bicycle. Thus began a hero's story. Taylor learned to ride exceptionally well, eventually earning money by doing tricks on his bike. He earned his nickname "Major" because he often performed in a military uniform. Of course he began to race. When he raced, he won.

His career covered 16 years and several countries, culminating with a victory in the one-mile event at the World Championships in 1899. He covered the distance in 1:19. That's one minute and 19 seconds. (Listen, I've done a lot of bike riding — commuting to work and racing in duathlons — and that is incredibly fast!) The fact that he accomplished all this amid the type of racial treatment so common to those times is all the more reason to immortalize him. The numerous cycling teams bearing his name do just that. The collegiate team I read about in Bicycling Magazine is but one of those teams.

That's the end of the story. Let's go back a little. As mentioned above, Taylor started riding on a bicycle given him by the wealthy family for whom his father worked. As his prowess in trick riding grew, he began to perform outside a bicycle repair shop in his hometown. A bicycle manufacturer and former racer, Louis “Birdie” Munger, hired Taylor as a live-in houseboy and factory helper. This relationship blossomed into that of a racing manager and father figure, as Munger nurtured Taylor's racing career.

Just as the popularity of bicycling surged in the U.S., around 1894, The League of American Wheelmen (LAW), then the governing body for the sport, banned black cyclists from amateur racing in the U.S. and might have cost Taylor his chance, except for the fact that those early black racers understood a vital lesson of liberty — if they won't let you join their club, start your own and beat them. This is pretty much what happened, as black biking clubs sprang up all over the country.

In an effort to expand his business and ostensibly to take advantage of a more tolerant environment for Taylor's racing, Munger opened a factory in Worcester, MA. As Lynne Tolman reported in a story from the July 23, 1995 Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

"By the time Munger decided to set up a factory in Worcester — in part to take advantage of the biking boom, but also to find a more tolerant atmosphere for his black protégé — Taylor was black champion of the United States.

u2018I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis,' Taylor wrote in his 1929 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.  In Indy, he had not been allowed to join the YMCA because of his skin color, but the Y in Worcester admitted him and working out there helped him develop the upper body strength to match his formidable leg power."

As Munger expected, Taylor began to win and win a lot. However, overt racism was his constant companion, even as he raced at break-neck speeds on his bicycle. Taylor competed successfully as much as he could but had to abandon the quest for a national sprint championship in 1897 because the southern promoters would not allow him entry in races. These tactics, which might be categorized as conspiratorial, were far from the only hurdles Taylor endured. As Tolman reported in another story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

"Hostility from white riders had gone from conspiratorial race tactics [such as teaming up to block Taylor] to threats to physical assault.  One time a competitor pulled Taylor from his bike and choked him into unconsciousness.  Some of the press condemned the racist treatment Taylor received, but some articles suggested he was to blame, saying white riders were understandably angered by his racing prowess and his failure to keep in his place."

I must admit that even as a (hopefully) relatively astute and "modern" black man, seeing the words "in his place" and contemplating the point-of-view of those white riders elicits in me an emotional response that is beyond visceral. The fact that the offender reportedly was only fined $50 just adds insult to injury. Imagine, a black man having the gall to ride his bicycle faster than they could. The nerve! (Next thing you know, they'll be thinking they are actually people with inalienable rights or something.) As is so often the case — I digress.

Below is a relatively complete, yet brief biography written by Tolman.

Major Taylor Biography At-a-Glance

November 26, 1878 — Marshall W. Taylor is born in rural Indiana to a black couple who moved north from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War.

1886–1891 — Taylor is raised and educated in the home of a wealthy white Indianapolis family that employs his father as coachman.  The family gives him a bicycle.

1892 — Taylor is hired to perform cycling stunts outside an Indianapolis bike shop.  His costume is a soldier’s uniform, which earns him the nickname “Major.”  He wins his first bike race that year.

Fall 1895 — Taylor moves to Worcester, Mass., with his employer and racing manager Louis “Birdie” Munger, who plans to open a bike factory there.

August 1896 — Taylor unofficially breaks two world track records, for paced and un-paced 1-mile rides, in Indianapolis.  But his feat offends white sensibilities and he is banned from Indy’s Capital City track.

December 1896 — Taylor finishes eighth in his first professional race, a six-day endurance event at Madison Square Garden in New York.

1898 — Taylor holds seven world records, including the 1-mile paced standing start record of 1:41.4.

August 10, 1899 — Taylor wins the world 1-mile championship in Montreal, defeating Boston rival Tom Butler.  Taylor is the second black world champion athlete, after bantamweight boxer George Dixon’s title fights in 1890–91.

November 15, 1899 — Taylor knocks the 1-mile record down to 1:19.

September 1900 — Thwarted in previous seasons by racism, Taylor finally gets to complete the national championship series and becomes American sprint champion.

October 1900–January 1901 — Taylor performs in a vaudeville act with Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy, racing on rollers on theater stages across Massachusetts.

March–June 1901 — Taylor competes in Europe, which he had long resisted because his Baptist beliefs precluded racing on Sundays.  He beats every European champion.

March 21, 1902 — Taylor marries Daisy V. Morris in Ansonia, Connecticut.

1902–1904 — Taylor races all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, with brief rests in Worcester.

1907 — Taylor makes a brief comeback after a two-year hiatus.

1910 — Taylor retires from racing at age 32.  Over the next two decades, unsuccessful business ventures and illness sap his fortune.

1930 — Impoverished and estranged from his wife, Taylor drives to Chicago, stays at the YMCA and tries to sell copies of his self-published 1928 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.

June 21, 1932 — Taylor dies at age 53 in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital, Chicago, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

May 23, 1948 — A group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Schwinn Bicycle Co. owner Frank Schwinn, has Taylor’s remains exhumed and reburied in a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Illinois.

Conclusion

There is so much more to share about this remarkable human being, but rather than do that, I offer the brief biography above, and invite any reader to enjoy the many pages of historical information about Taylor that may be found at the Major Taylor Association website. For a little historical context, consider this: Major Taylor was the second black world champion in any sport and accomplished his feats nearly half a century before baseball’s Jackie Robinson was integrated into the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It is my hope that I have whetted your appetite for more information about the wonderful highs and tragic lows in the life of this American hero. Since his autobiography was self-published and since he basically starved trying to sell copies on his own, I do not anticipate that it can easily be found, but Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer is currently in print and well worth the investment in my view.

I know I'll be picking one up.

For More Information

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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