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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Marshall "Major" Taylor

One of the greatest professional racers was an African-American named Marshall "Major" Taylor, born in Indianapolis in 1878. He rode his first bicycle, borrowed from a white friend, at the age of 8. When he was 12, Taylor took a job cleaning a bicycle shop. Soon, he was giving trick-riding exhibitions to earn money on the side. The military uniform he wore during the exhibitions earned him the nickname "Major," and it stayed with him throughout his life.

A bicycle salesman, H. T. Hearsey, entered Taylor in the 75-mile Indianapolis-Mathews Road Race in 1893. His entry was kept secret because Taylor had previously antagonized white bicyclists, as Smith explained:

A few months before, one of the cracks [fast riders] of the day, Walter Sanger, had set a new record of two minutes and eighteen seconds for the mile. Encouraged and paced by his white friends, Taylor had followed this by lowering the time to two minutes and eleven seconds, a feat that apparently caused him to be barred from racing in Indianapolis. As a result, the manager of the Indianapolis-Mathews Race was afraid the white riders would not race if they knew Taylor was entered.

Further to avoid problems, Taylor let the other contestants start while he remained on the sidelines. They were miles ahead before he crossed the starting point. Despite jeers from some observers, he soon caught and passed the white contestants and won first prize.

Taking white racer turned manufacturer Birdie Munger as his manager, Major Taylor moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, to get away from the prejudices of Indianapolis. He soon won first prize, a gold watch, in an L.A.W.-sponsored race in New Haven:

It must be pointed out that the LAW's attitude toward blacks at this time was ambivalent; it would not allow them to join, but it would allow them to race, an act of hypocrisy that was frequently pointed out to the organization.

Despite his skill, Taylor found that prejudice would hinder his efforts. In a New Jersey race from Irvington to Milburn, he was pacing the leader, a white man whose manager came out of the crowd and threw a bucketful of cold water in Taylor's face. He soon learned to stay in the pack for much of the race, then take the lead near the end with a last burst of speed. In New York City, Taylor turned professional in 1896 at Madison Square Garden, capturing fans' attention by beating better known competitors in the Half-Mile Handicap.

Through the remainder of his racing career, Taylor would face racial obstacles:

Taylor was subject to more than his share of roughneck riding. His competitors pocketed him at every opportunity, ran him wide on the curves, and fouled him repeatedly. He placed second in a race at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1897, only to have the third-place rider come up afterward and start strangling him. The police interfered, but Taylor remained unconscious for a quarter of an hour and was unable to finish the day's racing. The New York Times roundly condemned the culprit, who claimed that Taylor had ridden him into the fence. The Times also contended that while the majority of the white riders deplored the assault on Taylor, they "had approached the limits of fair riding in attempting to get an advantage over the colored lad." A Boston paper was more direct, saying that the other riders had deliberately tried to "throw" Taylor, that "the same dirty tactics have following the plucky little colored rider all around the circuit," and that it was "to the everlasting discredit of the men who are in on the schemes."

At times, his life was threatened before races. He tried to get out of these races, but if he could not, he would stay behind the pack out of the competition.

In 1897, he was competing head-to-head with the white racer, Eddie "Cannon" Bald, for first place in the national rankings, but was kept out of late races in St. Louis and Baltimore as a result of an apparent conspiracy against him. He came in second in the national rankings.

In 1898, he started the season under the sponsorship of the Iver Johnson Cycle Company. He was ranked 10th nationally when he won the 1-mile sprint at Asbury Park. To his surprise, many of the top white racers congratulated him, something they had never done. However, when he swept the professional races in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the local papers acknowledged the prejudice against him:

"If it were possible to make him all white," the paper commented, "all the boys would gladly assist in the job." However, it was predicted that it would be almost impossible to keep "this little negro boy who came into the cycling world entirely unheralded from winning the cycle championship of America in the season of 1898."

Later that year, Taylor participated in a match race at the Manhattan Beach Race Track on August 28 against one of the most celebrated middle-distance racers of the day, Jimmy "Midget" Michael. Before thousands of spectators, the two racers split the sprints, meaning that the $5,000 prize would go to the winner of the final heat. When Taylor easily won against his winded opponent, The New York Times called him the premier sprint racer in the world. The L.A.W. declared Taylor the national champion in 1898.

Taylor dominated races throughout 1899, setting records for many of the sprint distances up to 2 miles. In August, he entered his first international race in Montreal. He won the 1-mile and 2-mile opens, and would probably have won the 5-mile open but someone punctured one of his tires before the race. He was the first African-American bicycle racer to become an international champion.

His acceptance on the international stage did not mean he would be accepted in the United States:

Four days later he was in Boston to race in the LAW championship races. The field ganged up on the black rider and kept him in a pocket most of the time, and Taylor was beaten by Tom Butler in the One-Third-Mile Sprint and again by Butler in the One Mile for Professionals.

Because of such tactics, Taylor would not win the national championship in 1899, but in 1900, no one could stop him from dominating. "Taylor was proclaimed the national cycling champion with no conflicting claims from anybody." [Social History , p. 164-168]

Taylor toured Europe in 1901, then raced almost continuously in the United States, Europe, and Australia through 1904 as the popularity of the sport and bicycling in general declined. During this period, he was treated as an international celebrity in other countries, one of the most famous African-Americans in the world. Biographer Andrew Ritchie said of Taylor:

During those . . . years, Taylor engaged in a practically uninterrupted epic journey as the most celebrated, best-paid sprinter in the hotly contested hugely popular sport of professional bicycle racing. Paris was his adopted European home, and he was one of the brightest stars of the flood-lit races regularly promoted . . . on weekday evenings at the famous Buffalo velodrome in Paris. [The Vélodrome Buffalo was named after Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World performed there.]

He spent brief periods at home in Worcester to rest and recuperate, but for much of the time he lived in luxury hotels and fine boarding houses in Paris and the other cities he visited. He slept frequently in first-class accommodations on trains and boats, raced wherever his promoters scheduled him, and performed in a grueling succession of top-class races against all the world's best sprinters.

His color, which stood in his way in America, was the foundation of his appeal and attraction all over the world, and his speed and style continued to thrill spectators in every country he visited. During these . . . years, Taylor was probably the world's most sought-after athlete and almost certainly the most traveled sportsman in the world. He was, without a doubt, the world's most illustrious black athlete . . . .

Wherever Taylor traveled abroad, he was treated as an international celebrity. As he was leaving New York on March 25, 1902, he was visited by a delegation of black students headed by Booker T. Washington, who came to wish him well on behalf of black Americans. On board the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse on that trip, he kept company with Henri Fournier, the famous French racing driver, and Albert Clement, the automobile pioneer. His fame as a racing cyclist preceded him, and there were always crowds to welcome him and cheer him on. Everywhere he visited, civic dignitaries gave him the red-carpet treatment. [Ritchie, Andrew, Major Taylor: "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World," Cycle Publishing, 2nd edition, 2010, p. 136]

Even in Australia, which had legislated a "white Australia" policy that rendered non-white people (mainly the aborigine population) as outcasts, Taylor was hailed during his first visit in 1902. As his ship arrived, people on hundreds of boats greeted him by chanting through megaphones: "Taylor, Taylor! Welcome Major Taylor!" He and his wife were treated like royalty, able to break the color bar because of the popularity of his sport and the renown of his skills:

The racing during this first Australian tour was a spectacular athletic and commercial success. As in Europe, even Taylor's training sessions were attended by fans avid for a chance to see the champion at work. Crowds of twenty thousand people crammed into tracks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide to greet "the Worcester Whirlwind" with rapturous applause.

He was the idol, the hero of the moment, as he took on the leading Australian champions . . . . Spectators paid a shilling each for the privilege of seeing him race. To most observers it was obvious that, in a straight sprint, unhampered by unfair opposition and teaming, Taylor simply outclassed his rivals. Everywhere in Australia people who met him were impressed by his gentlemanly behavior. [Major Taylor , p. 138]

By then, he had practically abandoned racing in the United States, where the leading white racers regularly worked together against him. In 1901, as he competed for the American championship, they were determined to dethrone the man who had beaten the best Europe had to offer:

More than ever before, they collaborated tactically to prevent him from winning. They pocketed him, fouled him, and worked together in every possible way to defeat him. It was a return to the same athletic and racial hostility he had encountered in America before.

It was Major Taylor against the rest. Only in two-man match races could he be guaranteed a race without a combination working against him. Nonetheless, with his expert tactical sense and his extraordinary agility and speed, he continued to win. The supercharged atmosphere of the racing that reason made it all the more exciting for the spectators, of course, based as it was on such genuine and evident bad feelings between Taylor and his white opponents . . . . The abuse directed at Taylor was coarse and unrelenting. It would undoubtedly have resulted in brawling and fighting had Taylor not been a determined pacifist. [Major Taylor , p. 133]

Despite his status as a champion racer, Taylor was always aware that he was subject to the prejudices of the day. In 1898, for example, he had raced in Savannah, Georgia, a city selected as potentially the safest place in the South because African-Americans outnumbered whites. His arrival almost immediately caused a problem when he entered the boarding house where a room had been reserved for him:

Discovering that the newly arrived guest was black, the other boarders threatened to leave in a body if he was permitted to stay. Other lodgings were found with a black family on Lincoln Street.

But Taylor's troubles were just beginning. When he arrived at the track at Wheelmen's Park, the owners and other cyclists would not permit him or his white pacemakers to ride. The problems [his manager Willis] Troy had anticipated were not to be overcome easily.

With the track unavailable to him and his fitness for the coming season at stake[,] Taylor began to train on the road. Here, too, he soon discovered, he was unwelcome. Local cyclists began to complain, especially because Taylor had no trouble leaving them all behind. It was one thing to see a well-equipped "Negro" on a fine racing bicycle with his white pacemakers training on "their" roads; it was another when this nineteen-year-old upstart "mingled" with them, beat them on their home ground, and threw dust in their eyes. What began as a curious rivalry became, in the racial climate of the time, an effrontery. Taylor's presence became a provocation the white riders found impossible to ignore.

One day, training alone on the Louisville Road, he saw three white riders up ahead. He fell in behind them, but they told him they would not "pace" an African-American (using a different term, of course). "Alright then," Taylor told them, "if you won't pace me, I'll pace you." He sprinted around them and led them on a chase back to town and through Savannah's principal streets. The next day, Taylor received a letter warning him to get out of town in 48 hours, signed "White Riders." Taylor knew he had provoked the white population with his actions at a time when African-Americans had few protections in the South. Moreover, southern feelings were already on edge because in February, President William McKinley had appointed an African-American, Savannah Tribune publisher John H. Deveaux, to the office of Collector of the Port of Savannah. Taylor and Troy returned to New York. [Major Taylor , p. 63-64]

Now, in 1901, Taylor still faced racial tension even after his European triumphs:

Finding a hotel room while touring [in the United States] was still not always easy, in spite of Taylor's prestige.

A bitter experience at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Syracuse, New York, brought the difficulties home to him. He entered the hotel but before going to the front desk to register, took a few moments to write a letter. A bellboy asked him to leave, but when Taylor did not do so, a clerk appeared. "What are you doing there at that desk? Get out of here!" Taylor tried to explain who he was, but the clerk responded, "Get out of here or you'll be kicked out." Taylor left, but also was refused a room at the Yates House. He finally found a room at the St. Cloud Hotel:

In all his travels in America and Europe he had never been hurt more personally than by his treatment in Syracuse. Coming so soon after he had been idolized in Europe, such treatment was especially shocking and jarring to his sophisticated, expanded awareness. [Major Taylor , p. 134]

His world tours were a relief from some of the problems of Jim Crow America.

By 1902 and 1903, Taylor was thinking of retiring even as the sport was declining in popularity. However, he agreed to a second lucrative Australian tour in 1904. This time, promoters invited his primary white rivals from the United States to make the competition more interesting. They used their typical tactics to block Taylor, while Australian racers saw no reason to cooperate with him to block some of these efforts since they would not share in Taylor's pay. In a match race in Melbourne, one of the rivals caused Taylor to crash, leaving him stunned, bruised, and lacerated.

These activities made Taylor all the more popular with the Australian public, which attended his events in great numbers. Over 32,000 people attended a race at the Sydney Cricket Ground. However, the experience left Taylor bitter. Not only were his competitors blocking him, but officials' decisions were frustrating him. Many of the races were "inconclusive, spoiled as they were by bad judges' decisions, refusals to appear, and the muddle of frequent official inquiries and the withholding of prize money." By the time Taylor left Australia, he had decided never to return:

Ultimately, the public were deeply disappointed by the disputes, the confusion, and the chaos that spoiled Australian bicycle racing that year and often made it impossible for Taylor to give the stunning performances for which he was noted. [Major Taylor , 143-144]

Taylor would retire for several years, prompting a lawsuit for breach of contract and suspension for life by the National Cycling Association. He would return in 1908 for the French racing season. He had some success, but when he returned in 1909, he realized that after his years of grueling competition, his body would no longer let him race as in the past. He retired in 1910.

His later years were difficult, as his fame and fortune declined. He was eclipsed by other athletes, including John Arthur "Jack" Johnson, the first African-American boxing champion (1908-1915). Major Taylor wrote an autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy's Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds . When he could not find a publisher, he published it himself, then traveled around the country selling copies.

In 1930, estranged from his wife and daughter, Taylor moved to Chicago with unsold copies of his autobiography in the car. He fell into the city's impoverished African-American neighborhood and died there on June 21, 1932, at the age of 53. He was buried in the welfare section of the Mount Glenwood Cemetery, a Jim Crow cemetery 30 miles from Chicago. (In 1948, his remains were moved a more prominent location in the cemetery.)

Today, Major Taylor is little known outside bicycle racing circles, but Ritchie's book is one of several about his life. A 4-hour television mini-series, Tracks of Glory , made in 1991, told the story of his life, with Phil Morris (best known at the time for his role as Grant Collier in the TV series "Mission: Impossible") portraying Taylor.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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