The riders were drenched in sweat as they pumped their pedals hard and sped toward the finish line at Queen’s Park velodrome in Montreal, Canada. It was August and four men chased victory in the one-mile sprint of the world cycling championships. Suddenly, 20-year-old Marshall W. “Major” Taylor edged out in front of his competitors, thrilling the crowds in the stands. Taylor sailed across the finish line in first place and rode a victory lap around the stadium as cheers washed over the young champion. “My national anthem took on new meaning for me,” Taylor later wrote in his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. “I never felt so proud to be an American before, and indeed I felt even more American at that moment than I had ever felt in America.”
The year was 1899 and it was not an easy time to be an African American in the United States. While the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. constitution had emancipated slaves and made them citizens entitled to equal protection under the law more than three decades prior, prejudice and poverty still circumscribed the lives of many African Americans. Taylor challenged the racism of his time to succeed as an elite cyclist on the national and international scenes, despite the added challenge of being an African American in a sport dominated by whites. Amazingly, Taylor navigated past the prejudice of his fellow riders, sports officials, and promoters to become the first black world champion cyclist — and the second black athlete ever to win a global title. Roughly half a century before baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier as the first African-American athlete to play major league baseball, Taylor regularly competed against white athletes in pursuit of championship titles. As the first African-American cyclist to compete professionally on a regular basis, Taylor was a must-see attraction for Americans of all backgrounds. To African Americans, in particular, Taylor was a role model and symbol of what was possible to achieve in the United States in spite of racial prejudice. Taylor was also a beloved sports hero abroad, especially in France and Australia.
Taylor was born on November 26, 1878, in the state of Indiana. His father was a farmer who had served in the American Civil War and later worked as a carriage driver for a wealthy white family in Indianapolis. When Taylor was a child, his father occasionally brought him along to work. The employer’s family had a son the same age as Marshall and the two boys became close friends. In fact, Marshall later moved in with the family of his father’s employer, an arrangement that provided a better life for Marshall than his struggling parents could. Among the other material advantages of life with the family, Marshall was given a bicycle just like the other neighborhood kids. Marshall taught himself some bike tricks, which caught the attention of local bike store owner Tom Hay. Soon, Hay asked Taylor to hold an exhibition outside the store in order to attract customers.
Marshall’s knack for gathering a crowd led to a job offer at Hay’s shop. The compensation was $6 a week, plus a free bike worth $35. In addition to cleaning the shop, Taylor put on a daily show in front of the store. Taylor began dressing up to attract more spectators, eventually settling on a soldier’s uniform as his performing outfit. This earned him the nickname “Major.” While working at Hay’s bike shop, Taylor had long admired the gold medal on display that awaited the winner of the annual store-sponsored road race that was contested by the best amateur cyclists in the state. When the competition rolled around, Taylor attended — intending only to watch — but his boss, Hay, convinced him to compete. Once he was on the track, there was no stopping Taylor. Halfway through the 10-mile race, the young rider pulled a mile ahead! Spurred on by dreams of owning the medal he had coveted in the shop window, Taylor won the first cycling race he ever entered.
From there, Taylor’s interest in competition grew. When he was about 15, Taylor caught the eye of Louis “Birdie” Munger, a former competitive cyclist who had started manufacturing bicycles for a living. Munger took Taylor under his wing, employing and mentoring him over the next several years. Through Munger, Taylor met some of the biggest names in the bicycle industry, including American cycling champ Arthur Zimmerman. “I’m going to make a champion out of that boy someday,” Munger once vowed to Zimmerman.
In 1895, Munger moved his operations to the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Taylor followed. The next winter, Taylor rode his first professional race. He was just 18 years old. The race was a half-mile preliminary event at Madison Square Garden, the biggest sports arena in New York City. Taylor sped to victory in the preliminary event and placed eighth in the main competition, a grueling six-day race at the Garden.
As Taylor enjoyed more and more athletic success, some white riders started to resent competing against (and losing to) an African American. At times, Taylor’s white competitors banded together to prevent him from competing on a technicality. Or, failing to disqualify Taylor, they shouted demoralizing insults at him. Sometimes they physically ganged up on him, such as forming a pocket around him on the track to foul him during a race. In one instance, after Taylor finished second in a race in Boston, the white third-place rider threw Taylor off his bike and choked him, causing Taylor to lose consciousness for 15 minutes.
Taylor suffered other forms of racism on the road as well. Some hotels denied him lodging and certain restaurants refused to serve him. To his credit, Taylor persevered without succumbing to bitterness. Despite the mean-spirited behavior of his competitors and the challenge of confronting the prejudice of his time, Taylor retained a firm belief in fair play and still managed to best the other riders. In his autobiography, Taylor wrote: “A real honest-to-goodness champion can always win on the merits.” Besides good sportsmanship, Taylor practiced clean living — no drinking, no smoking, no drugs. He was also a devout Christian. Until the twilight of his career, Taylor refused to race on Sundays out of respect for his Baptist faith. This religious commitment (as well as his weariness of race-related complications that burdened previous competitions) cost him a national points title in 1898 because he refused to compete in the Sunday race, after having been shut out the previous year by racist Southern promoters who refused to let him participate.
By the end of 1898, Taylor had set seven world records and went on to claim both national and international championship titles the following year. After winning another national sprint championship in 1900, he competed for the first time in Europe the following year. In Paris, Taylor was finally treated like a celebrity: Foreign crowds feted him and he beat several European champions on that tour alone. The reception was just as warm in 1903 when Taylor competed in Australia. There, roughly 30,000 fans came to watch him race one event.
After a challenging second Australian tour, Taylor returned home to Massachusetts. But soon after arriving back in the States, he collapsed from the physical and mental strain of elite competition and the relentless prejudice that had accompanied it. By 1910, Taylor had had his fill of the sporting life. He was only 32 years old, but the stress of professional athletics had taken its toll. “In most of my races I not only struggled for victory but also for my very life and limb,” Taylor confessed in his autobiography. “Only my dauntless courage and the indomitable fighting spirit I possessed allowed me to carry on in the face of tremendous odds.”
Sadly, Taylor saw no relief in retirement. His business ventures failed, causing him to lose money and eventually his house. Taylor became estranged from his wife and daughter and, in 1930, he moved into a Chicago YMCA (a community service organization with a dormitory for low-income men). From there, he tried to peddle copies of his autobiography to eke out a living. Two years later, weakened by a complex of health problems, Taylor died penniless and alone in the charity section of a local hospital. He was initially buried in the pauper’s section of the local cemetery, with no marker commemorating his life and pioneering athletic achievements.
Years later, however, a group of professional cyclists familiar with Taylor’s story joined forces with the head a bicycle company to bury him with proper honors. The plaque that these athletes inscribed on the gravestone of the man that had inspired so many in his day captured the essence of Marshall Taylor, sports hero:
“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.”
This essay is excerpted from the Living Book Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African-American Achievement.