Major Taylor – the first African-American World cycling champion


I am a cyclist; further, I am a negro.”
Marshall Taylor, in a letter to “the bearings”, a newspaper, about to decision to restrict the League of American Wheelmen to white people.

“we will not definitely shut up and dribble”
LeBron James

People gathered outside Tom Hay’s bicycle shop in Indianapolis, Indiana, to see an awkward feat: A little black boy, nicknamed Major because he wore a military uniform, performed stunts outside the shop. He would ride on a wheel, or go very fast and soon break to stop in a short span; he’d curve at maximum speed making them fear he’d fall.

Hay wanted to draw people to his shop and this strategy proved successful. The boy smiled, he behaved like an artist, the spectators clapped their hands and bought bicycles, willing to try and repeat little Marshall’s, the boy’s name, acrobatics.

A long time before Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens and Mohammed Ali, Marshall “Major” Taylor became America’s first African-American champion, in a sport that now does not draw even a small percentage of the crowds it did at the time: track cycling. A long time before them, he had to endure the effects of the racial segregation, against which he spoke out clearly.

This makes him more than just an athlete, this makes him a precursor, an archetype, and a man in whose story we can see reflected the issues of race in America. His story is even more interesting now, when a journalist tells LeBron James to “shut up and dribble”, and the way she says it seems a sinister remind to a leading figure to not get involved in other things that may hurt his career.

Marshall was born in Indianapolis in 1878. His father, a former soldier in the Civil War, worked as a coachman for the wealthy Southward family. His father often brought little Marshall with him at work. Here, Taylor Jr met Daniel Southwards, the son of the family, and the two became friends.

The Southwards asked Marshall to live with them, and he did for several years. He would stay at their house, treated like a son. He learnt to read and write and in 1890, for the first time, he rode a bicycle. Cycling was starting to affirm itself as a leading physical activity. Bicycles quickly spread to the world after John K. Starley perfected the last version of the original drasine, invented in Germany in 1817 by Karl Dreis, adding the chain transmission and the robber pneumatic.

Marshall showed immediately a natural inclination to the sport. He liked to play and invented tricks that entertained his friends. When the Southwards moved to Chicago, Marshall remained in Indianapolis with his family, going back to the house in which they lived and ran into the real life of African-Americans, poor and in worse conditions than the family he’d lived with.

Taylor felt for the first time the effects of the segregated life. The people like him did not have the same opportunities as whites. They had to live apart, in different schools, toilets, shops, that offered a lower version of the American Dream. Having experimented the life with a white family, Marshall felt the absence of what he had enjoyed in his childhood, and always fought to eliminate these barriers, showing a civil mindset that the African-American athlete would collectively adopt only in the 60s.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan had disbanded, but lynching by the mob still took place frequently and most of the victims were black. In the North, the great industrial cities had welcomed fresh handwork from the South and in some cities, the African-Americans had their own zones, like Harlem in New York, in which they lived apart from the whites.

Blacks were starting to appear in the cultural life of the country. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois emerged as the first great African American intellectuals, working in education and culture. Blues and spirituals were recorded and the first black newspapers came to life. All this happened in the strict circle of the “black” culture, but it was the great novelty of this period, slowly changing the American culture as a whole.

Marshall Taylor and Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, were both born in 1878. Johnson came from Galveston, in the south, and as a kid, he remembered hanging around with white boys and sharing his life with them. Johnson was a very different character from Taylor. Equally conscious of their condition, but free from the ideal ambition that Taylor felt, to underline the struggle of African Americans.

Johnson married white women, and had problems with the justice for it, because the laws prohibited the inter-racial marriages. He had a provocative approach, always thinking much more about himself, so much that he preferred to fight against lower-level white opponents to earn more money, than to face the so-called “colored” champions.

As Johnson was confrontational, Taylor was silent. As Johnson was looking for ways to make the public talk about him, Taylor focused on the track, never deviating from his way. Taylor fought against discrimination that affected his career, Johnson’s more nuanced approach made him mix with whites, using the racial competition as a way to increase his wealth.

In the late nineteenth century, sports evolved very quickly. A roaring, thundering succession of leagues, events, from which the landscape of modern American sports emerged. Cycling ranked among the most favored sports and in particular the track race, in arenas, with many competitions taking place in one day: pursuing, sprints, the kilometer.

Marshall joined the Hartford’s See-Saw club, an African American team, which rivalled with the white-only Indianapolis Club, in 1895. His speed and his strength drew the interest of a former cyclist, Louis “Birdie” Munger, who took him to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was setting up a bicycle factory, to make of him a professional rider.

In a short time, Taylor became America’s most famous cyclist. The crowd filled up the Madison Square Garden, where he was the biggest attraction, and very rich contracts made him the wealthiest African-American in the country. Nevertheless, he could not win the 1898 sprinting title for the ostracism of the Southern Arenas.

He bought a house in the downtown Worcester. The white people around offered him to leave giving him 2000$ more than the price he’d paid for the house. However, for him, to stay there, was more important than ever and he refused. He could run with the white people, but living with them was a different matter.

After his astonishing first years of competition, Taylor was virtually unbeatable between 1900 and 1904. At the time, cycling recalled more people than baseball or boxing, 20.000 or 30.000 people would go to see him and he could earn the shocking amount of 35.000$ in a year.

In 1901 he came to Europe, where, for the first time, his color was not a hurdle but an opportunity. He competed in France, Italy, Austria, idolized by the people as the greatest track cyclist on earth. In 1901 he won 42 races out of the 57 he entered in Europe and in 1902 he won 40.

There is not Major Taylor’s video of the time. The Lumiere Brothers had invented modern film in 1895, cameras were very big and not easy to hold. The photos we have, though, show a muscular athlete, with a perfect position on the bicycle. The hands hold the lower bar, the body is perfectly still, and his eyes look ahead. His posture on the bike is perfect, he looks like a bronze statue and even today, you could imitate it to get the highest speed.

Marshall’s eyes impress. They look straight through the camera, as though they are looking at us. His mouth closed, his short hair, the black body muscled, strong, make him look like a modern time athlete. When you look at him, you do not see the early XX century cyclist, with long moustaches, strange shorts, picturesque. You see a Michael Jordan, a LeBron, a Jackie Robinson. An innovative, modern, truly actual athlete.

In 1905 and 1906 Marshall rested, coming back to compete in 1907 and still winning until the end, when he retired at almost 33 in 1911, still the strongest in the lot.

As many other athletes, life after sports was very difficult. He tried to get the Engineering school, but his lack of a diploma kept him out of it. Then, he invested in several businesses that went bankrupt, and the 1929 Wall Street crash left him in poverty.

Estranged from his family, he went to Chicago, where he lived in a YMCA structure, trying to carry on selling copies of his autobiography: “the fastest rider on earth”. His dream had died. He wanted to demonstrate he could be a businessperson, a man capable of building his fortune, but he wasted it, like many other white or African-American champions.

He died in 1932, aged 53. At first, his family was not aware of his death and he was buried in a nameless tomb.

It is odd to see that every time an African American becomes great in some sports, it changes it. In boxing, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Mohammed Ali. In basketball Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell. Jesse Owens in track and field, Jim Brown in football.

Marshall has been the first of these. George Dixon, a Canadian born boxer, became World Champion before him, but he was not as important as he was. Marshall was a true giant, on both side of the Atlantic, becoming an admired cyclist in America and Europe.

People forgot him for a long time. People forgot his sport, the example of how nothing is eternal on earth. In 1910 nobody would have bet on basketball to pull thousands of people to the games. Velodromes represented the most profitable venue and the six days competitions the most popular sport entertaining.

The American velodromes have long gone nowadays, though some survive, a whole sport able to move millions of people collapsed in the 30s, after the crisis struck and made the structures economically unbearable. Basketball and hockey replaced it, giving that stream of money that would help to get to today’s sport.

Taylor paved the way for others to come. He challenged prejudice, racial discrimination, never letting go situations in which he was penalized for the color of his skin. Taylor was aware of his role and of his importance for the young African Americans of his time, like LeBron nowadays.

Taylor died lonely, but his fellow teammates and opponents did not forget him. In 1948, Franck Schwinn, the owner of the bicycle maker Schwinn, donated the money to erect a proper burial in the Chicago cemetery, with a plaque, over which a sculptor wrote:

“Dedicated to the memory of Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor, 1878–1932. 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 the race who always gave out his best. Gone, but not forgotten.”

In 1982, Indianapolis opened the Major Taylor Velodrome and in 1989 he was inducted in the Cycling Hall of Fame.