Posted on 03/02/2008

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Marshall Major Taylor

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The Taylors

The Taylors
Family portrait of Marshall Taylor, his wife Daisy and their daughter Sydney.

Marshall Walter Taylor (1878 - 1932), was born on the outskirts of Indianapolis on November 26. He was one of eight children, raised in rural poverty not far from the noise and bustle of a rapidly expanding industrial city. At the age of 13, 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 bicycles, and doing exhibitions and tricks after regular working hours.

He first appeared as an amateur in races around Indianapolis and Chicago and later in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Soon recognized as the "colored Sprint Champion of America," he turned professional and astonished everyone. He continued to work at the bike shop until prominent bicycle 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 acclaim during a triumphant tour of Europe, the most international tour of European countries ever undertaken by a black American athlete. Against the best bicycle racers of the world, he enjoyed a position of unequaled supremacy. Taylor was the world fastest bicycle racer for 12 years.

Bicycle track racing between 1890 and 1910 was as popular as any of today's major sports. At a time when Black people were expected to know their place and not to challenge the dominance of Whites, the success of this determined young man 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. They were 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.

Contemporary Black Biography, various volumes
Edited by Shirelle Phelps