At the turn of the 19th century, cycling was the world’s biggest sport, and Marshall “Major” Taylor – The Black Cyclone — was its biggest superstar.
Forty years before Jesse Owens earned gold at the Berlin Olympics, and 50 years before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major Taylor smashed the color barrier in professional cycling. A gifted sprinter, he set world records in distances from one-quarter mile through two miles.
Born in Indianapolis November 26, 1878, Marshall Walter Taylor was one of eight children raised in poverty by a Civil War veteran father who worked as a farmer. Around 1887, Gilbert Taylor found work as a carriage driver for a wealthy white family, the Southards. Marshall often joined his dad at work and became close to his father’s employers, who had a son his age. The two became friends, and Taylor moved in with the family, providing him a more stable economic situation along with opportunities for a better education.
The Southards treated Taylor like a son. At 12, they gifted him his first bicycle. He taught himself bike tricks and caught the attention of Tom Hay, who hired Taylor to perform tricks in front of his bicycle shop to help attract customers. The lad often wore a military uniform, prompting the locals to call him Major.
Taylor was the first African-American international sports star. He entered his first bicycle race at 13, winning the ten-mile event easily. At 15, he set a one-mile record at the Capital City Track in Indianapolis. By 18, Taylor had relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, to race professionally. He quickly established himself as a world-class cyclist and, by 1898, had set seven world records. In 1899 and again in 1900, he was crowned national and international champion, making Taylor just the second black world title holder in any sport, behind bantamweight boxer George Dixon.
Taylor raced all over the world, including Australia, Europe and North America. Although welcome in Europe, he faced racism in America. In 1895, Taylor won a 75-mile road race outside Indianapolis, after which he was banned from racing in the Hoosier State, for racial reasons. He was barred from competing in the South. In Boston, Taylor was knocked off his bike and choked until police intervened, leaving him unconscious for 15 minutes. Taylor was often bumped and hassled on the track by fellow competitors, and crowds regularly yelled racial slurs and hurled objects at him while he raced.
Exhausted from maintaining a grueling schedule and tired of battling racism, Taylor retired from cycling in 1910, at 32. After 14 years of competition, and despite the obstacles, he had become one of the wealthiest athletes – black or white – of his time.
Taylor’s story is a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of triumph and tragedy. His post-racing life was difficult. After stepping away from racing, The Worcester Whirlwind lost most of his earnings in failed business ventures and became estranged from his wife and daughter. Taylor moved to Chicago in 1930 where he boarded at a local YMCA. He tried unsuccessfully to sell copies of his self-published autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. Mr. Taylor died penniless in the charity ward of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital on June 21, 1932. He was 53.
The first great black celebrity athlete, Taylor had no other African-Americans to offer him advice, forcing him to blaze his own trail. He became a role model for other athletes facing racial prejudice and discrimination, paving the way for those who followed. An honest, courageous and God-fearing man, Taylor’s legacy lies in his willingness to challenge racial prejudice in the white-dominated sport of cycling.
The greatest bicycle racer of his generation was buried in the welfare section of a Chicago cemetery. In 1948, Frank Schwinn, owner of Schwinn Bicycle Company, led an effort to have Taylor’s body exhumed and moved to a more prominent area of the cemetery.
In May 2008, a bronze-and-granite statue of Major Taylor was unveiled in his adopted hometown of Worcester. The ceremony was attended by several legendary athletes, including three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, Hawaii Ironman champion John Howard, and Olympic gold medal hurdler Edwin Moses.
Opened in 1982, the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis is home to Marian University’s 38-time national championship cycling team. In 2002, an African-American team in Indiana University’s Little 500 bike race – the centerpiece of The World’s Greatest College Weekend – named their squad in Taylor’s honor.