Black History Sports Spotlight

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: July 14, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) –As we continue our look back at great African-American sports heroes from the past, we focus our attention on the grueling sport of cycling.

Today’s subject was known as “The Major”. Marshall Taylor was an American cyclist and one of the preeminent African-American sports pioneers of the 20th century. Taylor was born on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana on November 26, 1878. He was one of eight children, raised in humble, rural poverty not far from the noise and bustle of a rapidly expanding industrial city. At the age of thirteen with the bicycle given to him from a friend, Marshall began to earn his first few dollars delivering newspapers. Taylor then worked in a bicycle shop doing repairs, teaching customers how to ride a bicycle, and doing exhibitions and tricks after regular working hours. He first appeared as an amateur in races around the Midwest in Indianapolis and Chicago and later drifting toward the East coast states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. Soon recognized as the “Colored Sprint Champion of America”, Taylor turned pro and astonished everyone. He continued to work at the bike shop until prominent racer “Birdie” Munger coached him for his first professional racing success in 1896. Despite continuous bureaucracy and at times, physical opposition, he won his first national championship two years later and became world champion in 1899 in Montreal and American sprint champion in 1899 and 1900.

He broke a series of world records and in 1901 received world-wide acclaim during a tour of Europe. At the time, it was the most international tour of European countries ever undertaken by a African-American athlete.

Against the best bicycle racers of the world, he solidified his position of unequaled supremacy. Taylor was the world fastest bicycle racer for twelve years. Bicycle track racing between 1890-1910 was as popular as any today’s major sports.

At a time when Blacks were expected to know their place and not to challenge the dominance of Whites, the success of this determined youngster came as a disturbing shock, and his astounding athletic speed as a revelation.

He was almost certainly the first Black athlete to have a commercial sponsor and the first to establish world records. He was also a representative of Black America abroad at a time when many people in Europe had never seen a Black person. In a world without cars, motorcycles or airplanes, racing cyclists were the fastest humans on earth. During this period, world-class bikers were depicted as heroic and glamorous figures. When Marshall Taylor died penniless in 1932 in Chicago at the height of the Depression, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. He was reburied in 1948 and his achievements praised at a Chicago memorial ceremony. It is safe to say that given the parameters of his sport, Taylor should mentioned in the same breath as current and former Tour De France champions Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond. “The Major” was hardly a minor in the world of cycling.

EDITORS’ NOTE: This story first appeared on BASN in February of 2004.