Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (26 November 1878 – 21 June 1932) was an American cyclist who won the world 1 mile (1.6 km) track cycling championship in 1899 after setting numerous world records and overcoming racial discrimination.
Taylor was the first African-American cyclist to achieve the level of world champion and only the second black man to win a world championship in any sport — after Canadian boxer George Dixon.
Taylor was the son of Gilbert Taylor, Civil War veteran, and Saphronia Kelter, who had migrated from Louisville, Kentucky, with their large family to a farm in rural Indiana. He was one of eight children: five girls and three boys.
Taylor’s father was employed in the household of a wealthy Indiana family, the Southards, as a coachman, where Taylor was also raised and educated. When Taylor was a child, his father would bring him to work.
The employer had a son, Dan Southard, who was the same age and the two boys became close friends. Taylor later moved in with the family and was able to live a more advantaged life than his parents could provide.
This period of living and learning at the Southard house lasted from the time he was eight until he was 12 when the Southards moved to Chicago and Taylor “was soon thrust into the real world.”
At age 12, Taylor received his first bicycle from the Southards and became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop owner, Tom Hay, hired him to stage exhibitions and perform cycling stunts outside his bicycle shop. The name of the shop was Hay and Willits.
The compensation was $6 a week, plus a free bike worth $35. Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform, hence the nickname “Major.”
When he was 13 in 1891, Taylor won his first race, an amateur event in Indianapolis. Two years later, in 1893 at age 15, Taylor beat the 1 mile (1.6 km) amateur track record where he was “hooted” and then barred from the track because of his color.
Major Taylor won his first significant race in 1895 at age 16. The 75 miles (121 km) road race, near his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, “came amid the racial threats of his white competitors.”
Shortly afterward, he relocated to Massachusetts with the help of his benefactor, Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, who was to become his lifelong friend and mentor, to a more tolerant area of the country.
As an African-American, Taylor was banned from bicycle racing in Indiana once he started winning and made a reputation as “The Black Cyclone.”
In 1896, he moved from Indianapolis to Worcester, Mass., then a center of the United States bicycle industry with half a dozen factories and 30 bicycle shops, to work as a bicycle mechanic in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, owned by Louis D. “Birdie” Munger where he was a racer for Munger’s team. Taylor first worked for Munger in Indianapolis and along the line, Munger “made up his mind to make Taylor a champion.”
Taylor’s first east coast race was in a League of American Wheelmen 1 mile (1.6 km) race in New Haven, where he started in last place but won.
The first time his name is mentioned in The New York Times occurred on September 26, 1895, He participated in a 10 miles (16 km) event in Brooklyn, New York, on Ocean Parkway; the race was called the Citizen Handicap. Major Taylor listed his address as Worcester, Massachusetts, and rode with a 1:30 handicap in a field of 200. There were nine scratch riders.
Earl Kiser, who was nicknamed the “Little Dayton Demon,” raced for the Stearns “Yellow Fellow” team during the same period as Taylor. Kiser became a two-time world cycling champion and competed all across Europe in the late 1890s. Kiser gave support to Taylor after he was barred from most national races. Kiser petitioned to have him included.
Taylor won the world championship in the 1-mile sprint in 1899 in Montreal. He was the second African-American athlete to win a world championship in any sport, after Canadian-born bantamweight boxer George Dixon of Boston won a world title in a series of bouts in 1890-91. He did not compete in the world championships again until 1909 in Copenhagen, and he did not win there.
Taylor married Daisy V. Morris in Ansonia, Connecticut, on March 21, 1902. While in Australia in 1904, Taylor and his wife had a daughter whom they named Sydney, in honor of the city in which she was born.
Taylor was still breaking records in 1908 but age was starting to “creep up on him.” He finally quit the track in 1910 at the age of 32.
While Taylor was reported to have earned between $25,000 and $30,000 a year when he returned to Worcester at the end of his career, by the time of his death he had lost everything to bad investments (including self-publishing his autobiography), persistent illness, and the stock market crash.
His marriage over, he died at age 53 on June 21, 1932—a pauper in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital—to be buried in an unmarked grave. He was survived by his daughter.
In 1948, a group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Schwinn Bicycle Co. (then) owner Frank W. Schwinn, organized the exhumation and relocation of Taylor’s remains to a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Thornton Township, Illinois, near Chicago.
A monument to his memory stands in front of the Worcester Public Library in Worcester, and Indianapolis named the city’s bicycle track after Taylor. Worcester has also named a high-traffic street after Taylor.
Taylor’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, died in 2005 at age 101; her survivors include a son and his five children. In 1984, Ms. Brown donated an extensive scrapbook collection on her father to the University of Pittsburgh Archives.