Imagine a time when bike racing was considered one of the top sports in the world. Now imagine a time when you were the only Black man competing in that sport only 30 years after the abolishment of slavery. That was the reality for Major Taylor.
Marshall “Major” Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 26, 1878. His father, a Civil War veteran, and farmer, worked as a carriage driver for a wealthy white family. Through his father’s work, Major built a very close relationship with his employer, which eventually led him to move in with the family. Considered to be part of the family, one of their gifts to him was a bike, which he immediately took to. He soon taught himself complex bike tricks he showed his friends and anyone willing to watch. A local bike shop owner was one of the people in the crowd and eventually hired him to do his tricks outside the shop to attract more customers. While doing this, he would wear a military uniform, which earned him the nickname “Major” from the shop’s customers.
In his early teens, Taylor entered his first bike race, a 10-mile event he easily won. By the time he was 18, Taylor had moved to Massachusetts and started his professional career. Major raced in the grueling six-day ride at Madison Square Garden for his first competition, including 17,000 laps around a track and over 1,700 miles. Taylor finished 8th when many believed he wouldn’t make it past the first day. After the success of that race, he didn’t look back. By 1898, Taylor had captured seven world records and was named national and international champion a year later. This made him just the second black world champion athlete in any sport.
Even through all of his success, Taylor had constantly fended off racial insults and attacks from other cyclists and fans. He was banned from racing in the South, and during races was often hassled and bumped and even had crowds throw things at him while he was racing. Through all of this, Major Taylor persevered and became a pioneer and symbol of hope for black athletes worldwide.