Marshall "Major" Taylor was much more
than just a bicyclist
By Albert B. Southwick
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
September 16, 2001
are positively no mental, physical or moral attainments too lofty for
the Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity."From the foreword to Marshall Taylor's autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World"
"Major" Taylor's exploits on the bicycle tracks of three continents are
legend. From 1898 to 1904 he was indeed the fastest bicycle rider in
the world. In 1899 he set seven world records -- in the quarter-mile,
the one-third-mile, the half-mile, the two-thirds-mile, the
three-quarter-mile, the mile and the two-mile. He did the mile (from a
standing start) in 1.41, a record that stood for 28 years. He did the
"paced" mile (behind a five-man windbreaker bike) in 1.31 and in 1.22
behind a motorcycle pacer. He also raced and won in the longer meets --
two-mile, five-mile, etc. He even once competed in a grueling six-day
race at Madison Square Garden and came in eighth, having logged 1,732
miles over the 142 hours of competition.
with his dazzling last-minute sprints, he was better adapted for the
shorter races. During his professional career, he won hundreds of meets
in the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland, England,
Italy, Denmark and Australia.
He would have won many more had he been treated fairly.
record would be impressive for any cyclist. It was phenomenal for
someone who, every time he rolled out onto the track, faced what he
called "that dreadful monster prejudice." It was his hard-fought
victory over the racist mind-set of America 100 years ago that gives
him national significance.
United States in 1900 was far more segregationist than it is today.
"Lynch law" violence still occurred in parts of the Deep South. Jim
Crow laws, authorized by a Supreme Court decision, prevailed in many
states. Most whites assumed that they were superior to blacks.
Major Taylor challenged that assumption in a dramatic way.
about 1890 and 1910, the most popular sport in the land was bicycle
racing -- far ahead of football, baseball and basketball. Crowds
numbering 20,000 or 30,000 would show up at meets. In aspiring to be a
winning racer, Major Taylor was challenging Middle America in a
sensitive spot. Bad enough that he was allowed to compete against white
riders. Far worse that he could beat them all in a fair contest. By
1898, it was obvious to everyone that he was peerless. It was too much
for some of the white riders on the circuit. They decided to gang up on
him, and they did.
Taylor's autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World" is a
compendium of many of his victories. It is also a dismal chronicle of
races lost because of dirty tricks white riders used against Taylor.
They would crowd him off the track, hem him in "pockets," rough him up
off the field, curse and threaten him. There is no telling how often he
heard the "N" word, and other vicious epithets. After one close race
(in Boston, no less!) a burly cyclist got him in a choke hold that made
him black out before the police dragged the assailant off. In Atlanta,
where he had planned to race, he was warned to get out of town in 48
hours or else. He finally gave up riding on the Southern circuit. He
was refused hotel lodgings in St. Louis, San Francisco and other
places. When the two big cycling organizations, the League of American
Wheelmen and the American Cycle Racing Association, got into a
jurisdictional dispute, the ACRA tried to get him banished for life.
Major Taylor prevailed. He had become so big an attraction that race
promoters often had to swallow their own personal prejudices and invite
him to compete. His name on a racing card guaranteed a sizable gate.
The contortions some of the promoters went through are revealing,
important were the reactions of the fans. Although they undoubtedly
included plenty of rednecks and "good old boys," many of them were
critical of the foul tactics and abuse that Taylor had to put up with.
Newspapers all over the Northeast and Midwest were up in arms over the
blatant unfairness of it all. Taylor became a symbol. He also became
the first great black celebrity athlete. In his peak years, he made
more than $35,000, a huge amount in those days.
polite, always a gentleman, he paved the way for Jackie Robinson and
the rest of the black athletes that the country now takes for granted.
The Williams sisters, of tennis fame, are the latest examples. And
right here, I think, Major Taylor becomes something more than a sports
legend. He should be recognized as one of the pioneers in punching a
hole through the walls of segregation that had stood ever since the
Civil War. And he did it in the field of sports, a crucial venue for
to a group of dedicated volunteers, an impressive plaque commemorating
Major Taylor is to be installed at the south entrance of the newly
expanded Worcester Public Library. When that finally happens, this
community will at long last properly recognize one of its most
distinguished athletes and national trailblazers.
Albert B. Southwick of Leicester, Mass., is the retired chief editorial writer for the Telegram & Gazette.