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Who Was Marshall `Major` Taylor?
 
By Lee Rodgers
Date: 12/8/2009
Who Was Marshall `Major` Taylor?
 

Who Was Marshall `Major` Taylor? 
"Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart…"

Marshall `Major` Taylor was the World One-Mile Champion in 1899, and a rider so dominant on the track that he not only set numerous world records, but often did so by lapping the entire field. He was a rider renowned for his speed, power, and tactical intelligence, yet the most remarkable thing about Marshall Taylor was that he achieved all that he did whilst struggling against social and institutional discrimination - for Mr. Marshall Taylor was a black man in a white man's sport.

Taylor was born in small-town Indiana on the 26th of November, 1878, and began cycling from an early age, after he was given an old bicycle by a family friend. By the age of 13, the young boy was working as an entertainer, doing tricks on the bicycle outside of a cycle shop in Indianapolis. Whilst performing, bringing in curious passers-by, he wore an old army uniform – hence the nickname Major.


Major Taylor Statue closeup

Soon he was racing in, and winning, local races. His powerful style earned him another moniker - The Black Cyclone. But at this time in history, Marshall soon found himself banned from racing against white competitors, simply because he was just too good.


Speaking of a road race that he took part in near Indianapolis before he was banned, Taylor spoke of his fear of being lynched by the other competitors.

“They made things disagreeable for me by calling me bad names and trying to put me down, and they even threatened me with bodily harm if I did not turn back. I decided that if my time had come I might just as well die trying to keep ahead of the bunch of riders, so I jumped through the first opening and went out front, never to be overtaken.”

Marshall won the race, and no doubt the episode reinforced a lesson he must have learnt years earlier; that he could use the anger and hatred directed towards him as motivation for himself, to be stronger, faster and more powerful than anyone else. That was what he set about to do, and that was exactly what he achieved.

Taylor had finally had enough of the treatment doled out to him in his home state, and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1896, at the age of 18, the Major turned pro, and entered his first race, held at the famous Madison Square Garden. In the short, half-mile race, Taylor demolished the field, lapping every rider before the finish line, to the amazement of the sold out crowd. His victory announced to all who witnessed it that a major talent had emerged.

Taylor married whilst living in Worcester, and had a child, though he was soon traveling all over America, Europe and even to Australia to take part in races. Of all the places that he went, however, it was in France that the newly-crowned World One-Mile Champion was truly celebrated as a hero. Racing in the French capital, the Parisians fell in love with Taylor's elegant, powerful style.

Taylor remembered one race in particular:  “I shall never forget the thunderous applause that greeted me as I rode my victorious lap of honour around the track. It was the first time I had triumphed on foreign soil and I was thrilled as I heard the band play the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. 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 felt even more American at that moment than I had ever felt in America.”

However, despite being lauded there, Taylor experienced racism even in France. At one track race organized by Henri Desgrange (the founder of the Tour de France, no less), Taylor won the main event, against French champion Edmond Jacquelin. Desgrange was so incensed by Taylor's victory that he paid the winner his prize in small 10-centimes coins - there were so many that Taylor had to use a wheelbarrow to carry them away.

"I advise all youths aspiring to athletic fame or a professional career to practice clean living,
fair play, and good sportsmanship." Marshall "Major" Taylor


But that was not the worst that Marshall Taylor had to deal with. At some races in the USA, he recalled, he had nails scattered in front of his wheel during races, and also had buckets of ice water thrown at him by spectators. In one particularly bad instance, Taylor was tackled by another rider and choked into unconsciousness. The other rider was only fined $50, and received no other punishment.

At the height of his fame Taylor was said to have commanded incredible amounts for appearances, illustrating just how famous he was. This was a time, hard as it may be to believe now, when cycling in America, and track cycling in particular, was more as popular than professional baseball. 

Taylor retired from cycling at the age of 32, still a well-known public figure, finally jaded by the sheer ferocity of racism that he encountered when he raced. Taylor sadly died alone on the 21st of June, 1932, separated from his wife, and penniless. He lost all his money on bad investments and the stock market crash of 1929.

Taylor was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Chicago, though a group of retired professionals got together and, with funds donated by Frank W. Schwinn, had Taylor's body exhumed and reburied in Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Illinois.

The legacy of Marshall Taylor lives on not in the way the man rode his bike, in the records and the trophies that he accumulated, but even more so in the way the man lived his life. His life was a testament to the human will to strive, to succeed, even in the face of the most vile oppression and adversity. He once wrote that even throughout the hardest times of his cycling career, he never hated any of the riders that discriminated against him. Demonstrating the remarkable nature of the man, he said, simply, that "Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart."

How fast was he? On Nov. 15, 1899 Taylor set a new world record for 1-mile at 1:19.

Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor (26 November 1878 - 21 June 1932)

"It is my thought that clean living and a strict observance of the golden rule of true sportsmanship are foundation stones without which a championship structure cannot be built." 
Marshall Taylor in The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World

Resources:
Major Taylor Association
Major Taylor Society
Major Taylor Cycling Club Columbus, Ohio
Major Motion Cycling Club Los Angeles, California
Major Motion Cycling Club - San Diego, California

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