The “Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World:” Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932)

Major Taylor, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers

“Taylor was a marvel on a bicycle. Riding against the fastest bicyclists of America, Europe and Australia, he won national and world championships against racial prejudice, unscrupulous tactics of riders and unfair decisions of officials.” Chicago Defender, July 2, 1932

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the sport of bicycle racing had the same feverish popularity as the Indianapolis 500 race and the cyclists the same international celebrity status as contemporary major league sports starts. The fastest of all of those star cyclists in America and Europe was Marshall Walter Taylor, a Hoosier and African American.

Marshall was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1878, one of eight children. He and his family lived in a rural area on the fringes of the city. His grandfather had been enslaved in Kentucky, and his father, Gilbert Taylor, was a Union soldier in the Civil War, after which he was employed by the Southards as a coachman. The Southards were a wealthy family and they gifted a young Marshall with his first bicycle. Soon he was bicycling along his long paper delivery route and practicing stunts when he was not working as a paperboy. Sometime between when Marshall was 10 to 13 years old, the Hay and Willits Bicycle Shop started to pay him to perform bicycle stunts in front of their store while dressed in a military uniform as a promotional draw.

According to an article published in the Washington, D.C. paper The Evening Star dated February 1, 1902, Marshall got his nickname “Major” from those performances, which eventually became his full-time job. The title would follow him into his prominent career as the famed cyclist Marshall W. “Major” Taylor. (Issues of the Courier are accessible via the Chronicling America website.)

Marshall also started to work as a repairman and instructor in a bicycle shop where Louis D. “Birdie” Munger was one of the managers. Munger had raced as a cyclist before he retired and started manufacturing bicycles in Indianapolis. He befriended Marshall, recognizing in the young teenager the potential to become a champion cyclist.

Despite being barred from being a member of bicycle riding clubs in the city and coming up against white cyclists who did not want to compete against an African American in a road race, Marshall did participate in a race that stretched 75 miles from Indianapolis to Muncie to Matthews. A blurb published in The Jasper Weekly Courier dated July 12, 1895, reported that “Marshall Taylor, a colored lad” was the winner of “one of the hardest road races ever run” from Indianapolis to Matthews. The writer wrote that Marshall was 18 years old at the time but he was actually only 17 in 1895. (Issues of the Courier are accessible in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper database.)

In the fall of that year Marshall accepted an invitation from Louis Munger to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, where the former shop manager planned to establish another bicycle shop.

Louis D. “Birdie” Munger
Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, courtesy of majortayloronline.com.

Marshall talked about his friend’s decision to move in his 1928 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds, which he dedicated to Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, his “True Friend and Advisor.” He wrote the following lines about Munger’s move to Massachusetts:

“… members of the [bicycle] firm [in Indianapolis] objected strenuously to Mr. Munger’s befriending me simply because of my color, and I was inadvertently the cause of Mr. Munger’s severing relations with the firm and his decision to establish a bicycle factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before our train pulled out of Indianapolis Mr. Munger informed a group of his friends that someday I would return to that city as champion bicycle rider of America.” Marshall Taylor, 1928

On living in Worcester Marshall said, “I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis.”

Marshall returned to Indianapolis in September 1896 to test his speed on the Capital City Cycling Club’s track in the city. Munger, who was at the time the founder of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company, had signed Marshall up to be one of the participating cyclists, and as the event was whites-only, he also smuggled Marshall into the Capital City Track, located at 30th Street (38th Street today) and the Monon Railroad (the Monon Rail-Trail today).

The roaring crowd of spectators marveled as Marshall set two new records racing around the track, first in the one-mile and then in the one-fifth-mile. But, cycling officials did not recognize his record-breaking times as official. The officials and other cyclists at the track were also angry at Munger for smuggling in a black cyclist who had rocketed pass the record times previously set by white cyclists. Marshall was banned from racing on the Capital City Track following the event.

He persevered on to win his first official professional race three months later. Between 1896 and 1904 he reached the climax of his career as a cyclist, setting world records at various distances between one-quarter mile and two-miles. He participated in races in Chicago, Connecticut, and New York.

Marshall not only had to overcome competitors but also extreme racism during his races. Racing events in the South barred Marshall from participation, and when organizers did allow the foremost cyclist to participate he was met with violence such as having ice and nails thrown at him by spectators and white cyclists eager to jostle, box in, and shove him during a road race. Marshall was even pulled to the ground and choked by a competitor during a race event in Massachusetts.

In his autobiography, Marshall reflected on experiencing racially motivated violence during his career. He came to the following conclusion:

“Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart, and that is why I have no feeling against anybody … In fact, I have never hated any rider that I ever competed against. As the late Booker T. Washington, the great Negro educator, so beautifully expressed, ‘I shall allow no man to narrow my soul and drag me down, by making me hate him.’” Marshall Taylor, 1928

Marshall also competed in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe, where black athletes encountered comparably less racist-charged violence. In August 1899 he won the world championship in the one-mile race in Montreal, becoming the second African-American to win a world championship in a sport. (George Dixon, a Canadian bantamweight and featherweight boxer, was the first African American to win a world championship title after defeating his opponent in the 1887 world bantamweight boxing match that was held in England.)

Marshall won the national championship in September 1900, becoming the American sprint champion in front of a crowd that numbered more than 10,000 people. His victories were chronicled in cycling journals and newspapers in America, including the Indianapolis Recorder and the Chicago Defender,and especially in periodicals in Europe. Fans as well as newspaper and magazine writers dubbed the Major the “colored Sprint Champion of America” and the “Black Cyclone.”

Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900
Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900, accessed Jazz Riffing on a Lost Worchester.

In 1901, Marshall traveled to Europe to compete in racing events. He did so only after promoters in France rescheduled races that had originally been set on Sundays out of respect to Marshall, who had up until then refused to participate in races on Sundays because of his religious convictions. Marshall was a committed Baptist who was known to not drink and compete fairly.

Marshall Taylor in Paris, 1901, accessed dandyhorsemagazine.com.

Between 1901 and 1904 Marshall defeated the best cyclists in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, winning most of the races that he participated in and proving his reputation as a world champion cyclist. He married Daisy V. Morris in March 1902 and also took briefs respites in Worcester during the last two years of competing. Marshall’s and Daisy’s daughter, Sydney Taylor, was born on May 11, 1904, in Sydney, Australia.

Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907
Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907, accessed historicindianapolis.com.

Marshall retired in 1910 at 32 years old. His post-racing career was beset with unsuccessful investments and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By 1930 Marshall, who was at that time staying at a YMCA in Chicago, was estranged from his wife and had lost the earnings that he had made as one of the best-paid athletes during his prime. In poor health, he worked to sell copies of his autobiography, which he published in 1928.

Marshall “Major” Taylor died on June 21, 1932. He was 53 years old. His body was moved from Cook County Hospital’s charity ward to be buried at Illinois’ Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens. His grave went unmarked until 1948 when a group of former cyclists solicited money from Frank Schwinn, owner of Schwinn Bicycle Company, for the funds necessary to exhume Marshall’s remains and have them reburied in another area of the cemetery with a gravestone.

 

Marker for Marshall Taylor's grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois
Marker for Marshall Taylor’s grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois, accessed CBS Minnesota.

Marshall’s and Daisy’s only child, Sydney, remembered her father as “‘a good man, a good father and a good husband … very gentlemanly.’”

While not faster than a speeding bullet, Marshall “Major” Taylor was, according to a writer for the African-American Registry, one of “the fastest humans on earth,” and certainly the fastest man alive on two wheels during the peak of his racing career between 1898 and 1910. The nicknames that followed him—the “Worcester Whirlwind,”the “colored Sprint Champion of America,” and especially the “Black Cyclone”—demonstrated the superhero status that Marshall reached through breaking world records and racial barriers in America and abroad.

The state marker recognizing his accomplishments was installed at the intersection of 38th Street and the Monon Trail in 2009 by the Indiana Historical Bureau as well as the Central Indiana Bicycling Association Foundation and Indiana State Fair Commission.

Taylor marker

Taylor marker side 2
Visit the Indiana Historical Bureau’s marker dedication page.

Taylor’s legacy of sportsmanship and courage was also honored with the erection of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome (MTV) in 1982 and a memorial at the Worcester Public Library on May 21, 2008.

The Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation accepted a recommendation from the Mayor’s Bicycle Task Force to name the $2.2 million dollar velodrome (a track with banked curves for bicycle racing), built with public funds, after champion cyclist Marshall Taylor. The construction of the velodrome was financed with public funds. It was the first building with that type of financial backing in Indianapolis to be named in honor of an African-American individual, and is one of only 29 or so velodromes in the country.

The plan for the building was developed through a partnership between Indy Parks and the Lilly Endowment, which included building a track stadium, natatorium, and the MTV in time for the 1982 National Sports Festival, which was hosted in Indianapolis that year. At that time Indy Parks Director F. Arthur Strong said the MTV “could possibly be the fastest velodrome in the country,” pointing out the track’s smooth surface and natural protection from wind due to being build into a hillside.

The dedication ceremony for the MTV was held on July 15, 1982. Marshall’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, was presented with a key to the city at the event.

Since its establishment the MTV has hosted numerous national competitions and an invitational for Olympic gold medalists as well as men’s and women’s national/world sprint champions from America, Mexico, and Zealand.

During the 1980’s the velodrome was also utilized as a public venue for bicycle riding classes and amateur cyclist races. Then-manager Chuck Quast credited the MTV with giving the opportunity to kids to come “out of the woodwork” and train to become world-class athletes.

In April 2011 Marian University, in partnership with Indy Parks, became the manager of the MTV. The facility became the Indy Cyclopex: Home of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome. The velodrome still functions as a venue for cycling races and community programs.

Learn more about Marshall W. “Major” Taylor:

Newspapers:

Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 01 Feb. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1902-02-01/ed-1/seq-9/>

Jasper Weekly Courier. 12 July 1895. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program. Indiana State Library. < https://newspapers.library.in.gov/cgi-bin/indiana?a=d&d=JWC18950712.1.2&srpos=2&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22Marshall+Taylor%22—–# >

Collections:

Clipping File, “Bicycles, 1980-89,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Clipping File, “Biography, Taylor, J.—Taylor, O.,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Major Taylor Collection, Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Donated by daughter in 1988).

Books:

Balf, Todd. Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

Ritchie, Andrew. Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Taylor, Marshall Walter “Major.” The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Reprinted from a copy in the Fisk University Library Negro Collection; first published. Originally published in 1928.

Websites:

African-American Registry. “George Dixon, an Early Champion Boxer.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/george-dixon-early-champion-boxer .

African-American Registry. “Marshall Taylor, Cyclist and Sports Trailblazer.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/marshall-taylor-cyclist-and-sports-trailblazer  

Indiana Historical Bureau. “Marshall “Major” Taylor.” Accessed August 11, 2014. http://www.in.gov/history/markers/MajorTaylor.htm#2 ; http://www.markinghoosierhistory.org/search-our-marked-history/?ihb_marker_details_viewer=333

Indy Cycloplex. “About.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://indycycloplex.com/about/.

King, Gilbert. “The Unknown Story of ‘The Black Cyclone,’ The Cycling Champion Who Broke the Color Barrier.” Smithsonian magazine, September 12, 2012. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-unknown-story-of-the-black-cyclone-the-cycling-champion-who-broke-the-color-barrier-33465698/?no-ist .

Levin, Steve. “Obituary: Sydney Taylor Brown / Psychiatric social worker from Schenley Heights.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2005. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.post-gazette.com/news/obituaries/2005/05/18/Obituary-Sydney-Taylor-Brown-Psychiatric-social-worker-from-Schenley-Heights/stories/200505180219.

Major Taylor Association, Inc. “May 21, 2008: Major Taylor statue dedication.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/events/2008may21.shtml.

“Who Was Major Taylor?” Major Taylor Association Inc. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/who.shtml.