Have you ever ridden a bicycle? If so, you’ve probably experienced the thrill of going so fast that the wind whips your hair and clothes around. You feel free and fast and exhilarated like nothing can catch you or stop you. Like you could ride the wind straight up into the sky.
Nowadays, cycling isn’t as popular as sports like basketball, baseball, football, or soccer. But in the late 19th century, right after the bicycle was invented, people went crazy for it. Tens of thousands would gather to watch races all over the United States, Europe, and Australia. And the unlikely hero of the cycling world for a time was an African American man named Marshall Taylor, nicknamed “Major.”
Major’s mother and father moved from Kentucky to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was born. We don’t know a lot about them. His father, Gilbert, fought in the Civil War for the North. Gilbert worked as an attendant for a wealthy businessman named Willian Southard.
This connection to the Southard family would prove lucky for Major. Gilbert brought Marshall along to his job sometimes, and he became best friends with the Southard’s son, Dan. At this time, blacks still faced a lot of unfair treatment in the United States. But even though the Southards were white, they encouraged the friendship. In fact, when they saw how happy Dan was with Marshall, they arranged for him to stay at their house for long periods. Dan and Marshall would play with all kinds of toys in his playroom, build things in William’s workshop, and went to school together. But the best thing about the Southard’s house, once he got hold of it, was Dan’s bicycle.
Major loved riding that bicycle, and soon learned how to do tricks. Soon, the Southards bought him his own bicycle as a gift. One day, when the bike needed repairs, he took it to a bike shop. He showed the owner, Mr. Hays, some of his tricks, and a crowd gathered to watch! Major stood on the seat of the bike while riding, and hopped over the handlebars to get off. He could ride on narrow planks, like a balance beam, and down sets of stairs. Mr Hays got an idea! If Major could attract so many visitors to his shop, maybe he could help sell bikes. He offered him a job then and there.
Marshall helped out, sweeping and dusting the shop, and performing tricks to attract passersby. He often wore a jacket that looked like an old military uniform, and that’s how he got the nickname “Major,” which would stick with him. When he had a spare moment, he would marvel at a gold medal that sat in the shop window, a prize for a bicycle race. He imagined winning a race, the crowd cheering and the band playing just for him as they pinned a gold medal to his shirt.
Mr Hays noticed him admiring the medal, and encouraged Major to enter an upcoming race. Thirteen-year-old Major was nervous, but Mr. Hays told him to just ride as far as he could. Major agreed. He had been riding miles every day, and maybe didn’t realize just how strong and fast he was compared to others. He rode so hard in the race, trying to keep ahead of the other riders, that he began to feel faint. After crossing the finish line, he collapsed from exhaustion.
But, when he woke up, guess what he saw pinned to his chest? It was a gold medal! He had won!
As Major grew older, he entered more races, and trained more seriously. He caught the eye of a champion cyclist named Birdie Munger. Birdie was amazed by Major’s dedication, speed, and skill. Birdie’s racing days were over, but he was opening a bicycle factory and wanted Major to work for him and race on his bicycles! The two quickly became friends, training together on their bikes. Many famous cyclists would visit Birdie, and Major was impressed by how kind and helpful they were towards him. But Birdie Munger knew how to choose good friends. Not everyone in the cycling world was so nice.
Major discovered this when he began to race on the professional circuit. Birdie entered him into his first race himself, without letting the organizers see Major. He worried that if the race officials knew Major was black, they might not let him race. Major hid near the starting line, and hopped on his bike just as the starting pistol was fired. He pedaled madly, and he won!
Eventually, Birdie moved his factory to Worsecter, Massachuesetts, and Major came with him. His goal was to become the fastest man in the world, and win a world championship. Worcester was a more tolerant place than many other parts of the country. Major trained there and made it his home. He joined an African American church and bought a house. He rode miles every day, lifted weights, and ate a healthy diet. He never smoked or drank alcohol, and, because he was deeply religious, never raced on Sunday. But Major had to travel for races in areas that were less accepting. There were some places where he couldn’t safely travel at all. Still, he won most of the races he entered, and was becoming famous.
As Major won more races and became more well known, many white cyclists were angry. They thought he shouldn’t be allowed to compete because of skin color, but they were also embarrassed that he kept beating them. Some white cyclists began to gang up on Major, trying to push him off the track or cause him to crash. As a result, he had several major falls. Major even began to feel that racing was too dangerous.
But a sports promoter named William Brady had different ideas. He wanted to manage Major’s career and help him become the national–and then world–champion. He actually thought people would be curious to see Major ride against the best white riders, many of whom had treated him so badly. And that would make him a lot of money. Major agreed, even though it was dangerous. He realized that if he was going to prove that blacks were capable of doing anything whites could do, he couldn’t just quit. He had to stay on his bike.
After training and racing for a year with Brady, Major was ready to take to the track at the world cycling championship in Montreal, Canada. He was still the target of racist treatment from other riders and officials in the US, but it didn’t matter. Major won most of the races he entered, so he qualified. And, as you might have guessed, he won, even setting a world record for a one-mile sprint!
But the proudest moment for Major came after the race, when the crowd cheered and the band began to play a victory song. In the United States, when Major won a race, the band would usually play a popular tune about black people from the time. These songs had ugly, insulting lyrics, and even though they were played by instruments and not sung, people knew the words. But in Montreal, the band chose a different song to celebrate Major’s victory: “The Star Spangled Banner.” Major later wrote that “My national anthem took on a new meaning for me from that moment. I never felt so proud to be an American before, and indeed I even felt more American at that moment than I ever felt in America.”
Now Major was an international star. Offers came in from all over the world for him to race in different countries, and challenge the top cyclists of the day. He went to Europe and raced another world champion, Edmond Jacquelin. He traveled to Australia to compete against their national champion, Don Walker. Despite being rivals on the track, Major became good friends with Walker. Major was always a good sport: he never let competition on the racetrack get in the way of good behavior off it.
But whenever he came home to the US, Major was reminded of the unfair treatment and racism that infected the sport in his own country. Officials fined him when he got sick and couldn’t race. Other cyclists continued to try to ban him, push him off the track, or make him crash. And just like other African Americans of the era, hotels, and restaurants often refused to serve him.
But his life did have bright spots. Major fell in love with a young woman from his church named Daisy. The two were married and traveled around the world while Major raced again in Australia and Europe. When he returned home this time, Major was tired. He especially didn’t want to race in the US anymore if it meant risking his life. He and Daisy had welcomed a baby girl into their lives. Over the next several years, he took several breaks from cycling, but couldn’t quite bring himself to quit completely. Over time, he stopped winning so many races, and finally decided to retire for good. He started several businesses, but none were successful, and he lost much of the money he’d made cycling.
In 1917, years after his retirement, Major entered one last race. It was an “old-timers” race for cyclists who were retired. His old friend, Birdie Munger, came to start him in the race. A starter would hold the racer’s bike upright , so when the starting pistol went off, they’d be ready to start pedaling immediately. Birdie had started Major in his very first professional competition, but this time, Major knew it would be his last race.
Major Taylor would have won bicycle races even if he’d been born a hundred years after he was. He was an excellent cyclist–fast, strong, dedicated, and strategic. But because he was born at a time when many white Americans had ugly, wrong ideas about African Americans, Major showed that he was not just an excellent athlete, but an extraordinary human being. He kept going, fighting with every stroke of his pedal against people who cheated, taunted, and attacked him. He acted with a bravery, grace, and sportsmanship that most of his rivals could not measure up to.
As Birdie held his bike in that last race, Major was comforted to have his best friend and most dedicated supporter beside him. When the starting gun cracked, Major Taylor pedaled like the wind, strong and free on the track. And he won.
Major Taylor sites:
Indiana State Museum exhibit through Oct. 23, 2022
Major Taylor Velodrome, Indianapolis, IN
Worcester Public Library statue
Major Taylor Bike Trail, Chicago, IL
Balf, Todd (2009) Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being. Crown.
Kranish, Michael (2019) The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero. Scribner, New York.
Taylor, Marshall W. (1972) The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World; The Autobiography of Major Taylor. EP Dutton.