Cyclist Marshall W. “Major” Taylor was the fastest man on earth. He won thousands of dollars as a bicycle racer and became the most famous African-American in the United States.
This was the golden age of cycling, and bicycle racing was a premier sporting event. Thousands of fans packed indoor velodromes to watch races and many more read about them the next day in the news. Read on to hear Taylor’s remarkable story through our digitized newspapers.
Taylor’s father’s employer gave him a bicycle at a young age, and by thirteen he was skilled enough to perform tricks—pedaling his bike forward, backward and even while perched on the handlebars. Mr. Thomas Hay, the owner of a bicycle shop called Hay & Willits, took notice and paid Taylor to perform cycling tricks outside the store in order to drum up business. He often wore a military uniform (his father fought for the Union in the Civil War), hence how he came to be better known as “Major” for the entirety of his career.
As a teenager, he was taken under the wing of Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, and under Munger’s tutelage, Taylor qualified for his first professional race, the 1896 Six-Day Bicycle Race in Madison Square Garden, one of the country’s biggest sporting events. Despite competing with riders with much more age and experience (Taylor was only eighteen), he came in eighth place.
Newspapers soon dubbed him the “cycling wonder,” and over the next two decades, he became one of the world’s most successful racers and captured what was considered “the most coveted of all records, that of the world’s one-mile sprint.” He broke the international color barrier in any sport a full decade before boxer Jack Johnson became the world heavyweight champion in boxing. He went on to knock seven cycling world records to smithereens and won the U.S. national professional bicycle racing championships.
Racial prejudice of the time barred Major and other black cyclists from competing in white races and hostile competitors showed unsportsmanlike conduct on the race track, taking any opportunity to stop Taylor from competing, including inflicting harm. Taylor persevered and throughout his career challenged the discrimination he encountered on and off the race track, becoming a pioneering role model for other athletes facing racial prejudice and discriminatory treatment.
Newspapers often defended his right to race, and managers supported him as a great cyclist and a man. Newspapers like the New York Journal and Advertiser believed he deserved “great credit” for his work, while countless other articles praised his accomplishments.
Taylor traveled around the world and faced the fastest cyclists the world over in America, Canada, Europe, and Australia, winning most of the races he entered. He returned to Madison Square Garden and was declared “Champion Indoor Bicycle Rider of America” in 1901. By the time he retired at age 32 in 1910, he was regarded as the most prominent, “best trained and swiftest cyclist”, and the most talked-about bicycle racer. You can read about one of his last races here.
To read about his life in his own words, check out Taylor’s autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds. A great number of books written about Taylor are available in the Library’s collections, including recent comic acquisition, Major Taylor, World Champion.