Arguably one of the best cyclists of all time is a man that 99 percent of the world has never heard of. Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor, born on November 26, 1878 was a champion cyclist, multiple multiple world record holder and the first African American to become a world champion - in any sport.
The son of a Civil War veteran Marshall Taylor was raised and educated in the home of the Southards, a wealthy Indiana family that employed his father. Taylor developed a strong friendship with Dan Southard who was the same age as Marshall and at age 12 the Southards gave young Marshall his first bicycle. Young Marshall immediately took to the bicycle, becoming an expert trick rider and catching the eye of a local bike shop owner who subsequently paid Taylor $6 per week to perform stunts outside of the bike shop. Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldiers uniform and gained the nickname “Major”.
Taylor was not only an excellent trick rider, but he was an extremely gifted racer as well. At age 13 Major Taylor entered and won his first race, an amateur event in Indiana. At age 16 he won a 75 mile race in Indiana competing against the best white racers of the day and experiencing extreme racism before during and after the race. It was racism that ultimately drove Taylor out of racing in Indiana and he subsequently took his talents to Massachussettes where he won his first east coast race.
Major Taylor turnd pro at age 18 and immediately began to dominate racing. He won his first professional race, lapping the entire field. Taylor raced in America, Australia and Europe and beat all comers. By 1898 Major Taylor held seven world records and had won 29 of his 49 races. In 1899 Taylor set seven world records in a one week period and won the World Championship; the first African American to ever do so. In 1902 he won 40 of 57 races on the European Tour beating competitors in Germany, England and France. His record for the mile stood for 28 years and he continued to set world records from 1989 to 1908.
Although Taylor enjoyed unparalleled success as a racer, he was always dogged by racism, enduring taunts death threats, bad sportsmanship and downright cheating leveled against him. through it all Taylor maintained an amazingly high moral code and never engaged in retaliation against his competitors. The racism within the sport did eventually wear him down and in 1910 at age 32 he retired.
Major Taylor always carried himself with dignity even in the face of debilitating prejudice. It certainly would have been easy for Major to lash out at those who discriminated against him on and off the track, but Taylor never wavered - he just won races. He spoke out against racism and always encouraged black men to attain their highest goals in spite of setbacks placed by society. From Taylor:
"There are positively no mental, physical or moral attainments too lofty for the Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity."—Marshall Taylor
"I trust they will use that terrible prejudice as an inspiration to struggle on to the heights in their chosen vocations."—Marshall Taylor
Major Taylor believed in fair play and honest competition
"I would advise all youths aspiring to athletic fame or a professional career to practice clean living, fair play and good sportsmanship."
"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 "Major" Taylor in The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World
Through it all Taylor was never bitter and understood that all men do not subscribe to racism
"In closing I wish to say that while I was sorely beset by a number of white riders in my racing days, I have also enjoyed the friendship of countless thousands of white men whom I class as among my closest friends." - Marshall "Major" Taylor
These words were spoken over 100 years ago and are still just as relevant today. We salute this man that far too few have ever heard of and hope that we can help spread his message today.
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