Freedom on Two Wheels: Major Taylor

Submitted by CCCL_AlbertG

The World’s Fastest Man and America’s First Black Sports Star 

Major Taylor 

Marshall W. “Major” Taylor was an African-American professional cyclist who set over 30 world records. He won the world cycling championship in 1899 and was the American sprint champion in 1900. Born in Indianapolis in 1878, he was nicknamedMajor” while working for a bicycle shop. He would perform tricks on his bike in front of the shop wearing a military uniform and the name stuck. In 1898, Taylor moved to Worcester, Massachusetts and started racing professionally, earning the nickname “The Worcester Whirlwind.”  

In a word I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail. – Major Taylor 

While Taylor was celebrated abroad, at home he faced intense racism and discrimination: through insults and attacks from fellow cyclists and fans. In the southern United States during the height of the Jim Crow-era, Taylor was prohibited from participating against white cyclists and refused service at restaurants and hotels. After breaking two world records while defeating a group of white cyclists in his hometown of Indianapolis, Taylor was subsequently banned from the track. In 1897, Taylor finished second in a race, only to be tackled and choked into unconsciousness by another cyclist after the event. Despite all of this oppression, by 1899 Major Taylor had captured 7 world records and had been crowned a national and international champion. 

Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart. – Major Taylor 

After years of physical and mental strain caused by the racial prejudice he experienced both on and off the bicycle, Major Taylor retired from competitive cycling in 1910. Life after cycling proved challenging with financial difficulties due to poor investments, The Great Wall Street Crash, and unsuccessful business projects. Taylor sold his family home in Worcester to pay off debts and suffered poor health in his later years. In March of 1932, Taylor experienced a heart attack. After a failed heart operation, he was moved to Cook County Hospital's charity ward where he died on June 21 at age of 53.  

In closing I wish to say that while I was sorely beset by a number of white riders in my racing days, I have also enjoyed the friendship of countless thousands of white men whom I class as among my closest friends. – Major Taylor 

Taylor was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Thornton Township, IL. Sixteen years later, a group of former professional cyclists organized the exhumation and reburial of Taylor's remains to a more prominent location in the cemetery. When the city hosted the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1982, Indianapolis opened the Major Taylor Velodrome. In 1989, Taylor was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and in 2003, named a Sports Ethics Fellow by the Institute for International Sport. A statue relating Major Taylor’s story stands outside the Worcester Public Library in Worcester, Massachusetts. The statue was commemorated on May 21, 2008 and attended by Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. 

Modesty should be typical of the success of a champion. – Major Taylor 

For more information on Major Taylor, check out the Booklist – Two Wheels, a Desire, and a Finish Line, search the Library’s catalog or search for articles on one of our research databases such as Explora and Britannica School.