On November 26, 1878, two days before Thanksgiving, Gilbert and Saphronia Taylor welcomed their fourth child, Marshall, into the world. Gilbert, a Union veteran of the Civil War, had moved his family to Indianapolis only a few years after the war ended and his home state of Kentucky began issuing new restrictions on blacks. Indianapolis not only held better opportunities for the young family, but it would open a door for their new son that none would have thought possible.
When Gilbert accepted a job as a coachman for the Southards, a prominent family in Indianapolis, Marshall soon struck up a friendship with the family’s young son, Daniel. The friendship became so close that the family requested for Marshall to stay with them for long periods of time. Though Gilbert and Saphronia were hesitant, they allowed it as long as Marshall adhered to his Baptist upbringing.
Marshall, as noted in his autobiography, was “the happiest boy in the world” playing the part of a “millionaire kid.” This friendship not only benefited him in the immediate, but also in the future as it would set him on the path to become one of the most popular and successful athletes in the world.
A Boy and His Bike
When Daniel moved away, Marshall was left with a token of their friendship: a bicycle. As a paperboy, earning $5 a week, he rode his bike every day for hours and miles. When not working, he spent countless hours riding and learning tricks. As a very young teen, he took his bike to a repair shop. Out of habit, he performed a trick he had taught himself. The owner of the shop, Tom Hay, asked if he knew any more tricks. Marshall had plenty.
Hay saw the advertising potential and offered Marshall a $35 bicycle (nearly $1,200 today) and $6 a week if he would work for him. After receiving permission from his mother, Marshall arrived every morning to sweep and dust the store, and at 4 p.m., he would begin his bike trick exhibition in front of the store. During these exhibitions he wore a military-style uniform, which led to his nickname, “Major.”
While working at the store, Taylor became mesmerized by a gold medal that was to be presented to the winner of the local annual 10-mile race. Taylor had never witnessed a race before and decided to attend as a spectator. Hay, on the other hand, insisted Taylor take his place at the starting line.
Taylor was all nerves. When Hay saw Taylor crying, he reconsidered his insistence but then whispered to the young rider, “I know you can’t go the full distance, but just ride up the road a little way, it will please the crowd, and you can come back as soon as you get tired.”
Hay’s whisper of reverse psychology may have been just what motivated Taylor to go far beyond “the road a little way.” The sole black rider raced through a thunderous applause, many of the spectators most likely familiar with him from his stunts at the bike store.
Halfway through the race, Hay and others rode up next to him on their bikes and informed him he was well ahead of the hundreds of other riders. Then Hay dangled the gold medal in front of him. It was the final piece of motivation needed. “From then on I rode like mad and wobbled across the tape more dead than alive in first place,” he recalled. It was Taylor’s first race of many and the first of many triumphs—though those triumphs did not come without resistance.
Sources of Motivation
In August 1896, the cycling world directed its attention to the Capital City track in Indianapolis, where Walter Sanger, one of the top cyclists, attempted and succeeded in breaking the 1-mile track record. That record, however, would not last the day.
After Sanger left the track, several of Taylor’s friends snuck him into the dressing room and then onto the track. The crowd’s enthusiasm had hardly subsided before news began to spread that the young local rider was attempting to break the brand-new record. The crowd sat with bated breath as his friends helped pace him and he zoomed around the track.
The 14-year-old beat the record by a full 7 seconds. Later that evening, he would beat the one-fifth mile record, which had been set earlier that year in Europe.
For Taylor’s friends, it was more than just about setting records. “They were fighting for a principle as well as for my personal success,” he wrote. “They were all white men, and had stacked their all in the belief that I was capable of breaking Sanger’s newly established record, … but in so doing they incurred the enmity of a group of narrow-minded people.”
This group of narrow-minded people was not in the crowd, but in the circle of competitive riders. They took exception to his competing strictly due to his race. Not only was Taylor not paid for setting a new record, as Sanger had been, but he was barred from competing at the Capital City track and any other track in Indianapolis.
Birdie and Major
Though he was barred from tracks in Indianapolis, he still competed extensively in races, ranging from 1 to 75 miles. As his fame grew, his name came to the attention of one of the most popular and successful riders of the era: Louis D. “Birdie” Munger. Munger became one of his “staunchest supporters and advisers” and made the promise to turn Taylor into the “fastest bicycle rider in the world.”
He soon met Arthur A. Zimmerman and Willie Windle, both champion racers. Munger, Zimmerman, and Windle recognized they were in the presence of a young phenom and wanted to help him succeed. Their kindness left a lasting impression. “There was no race prejudice in the make-ups of Zimmerman and Windle―they were too big for that,” he recalled. “I remembered their sterling qualities and did my best to live up to them.”
Though the trio of champions supported Taylor in his quest to also become a champion, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) did not. Obviously noticing Taylor’s rise, they voted to bar black riders from becoming members. With the membership ban and Taylor’s ban from local tracks, he and Munger moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, in September 1895. Taylor noted “there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I experienced in Indiana.”
The 1896 season would prove successful as he would dominate the amateur field. In the winter of 1896, however, the 18-year-old would make his leap from amateur to professional in the biggest racing event of the year at one of the most prominent venues: the Six-Day Race at Madison Square Garden.
Six Brutal, Triumphant Days
More than 50 of the world’s best long-distance riders assembled for the event. There were many who worried the demands of the race would ruin Taylor’s career as a sprinter. Certainly, it had physically and psychologically damaged others, causing many to hallucinate or drift off to sleep and crash. Only three years after Taylor competed, the New York legislature passed legislation banning individual racers from competing for more than 12 hours per day.
At the start of the festivities, Taylor won the half-mile race against some of the top riders, including the nation’s most popular sprinter, Edward “Cannon” Bald. Taylor won $200―his first money prize, which he immediately wired to his mother.
At midnight, the Six Day Race began, and Taylor rode for 18 hours straight. He was only afforded a 15-minute break before his trainer rushed him back to the track. He began the second day in eleventh place and ended it in fourth; by then more than half of the riders had quit due to exhaustion or injury.
Deep into the race, completely exhausted and hallucinating, he told his trainers, “I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.” His trainers decided to fasten a pillow to his handlebars so he could race without raising his head. One reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle noticed Taylor was “fast asleep while on his wheel.” As more riders fell to the wayside, Taylor pressed on.
Into the sixth day, with only 30 minutes remaining in the race, Taylor crashed into another rider and collapsed in a heap. Despite the cheers from the crowd to keep going, he was through. He had covered 1,787 miles, finished eighth, and was awarded $125.
A Champion Denied
The following year, 1897, he proved the Six Day Race hadn’t ruined him. Despite not being granted membership into the LAW, he was able to race in their sanctioned National Circuit events. He won the 1-mile race at the Charles River track in Boston, then the 1-mile race in Providence, Rhode Island, both times defeating Tom, Nat, and Frank Butler, who were considered “practically invincible.”
Regardless of the rules, there were still tracks on the National Circuit that refused Taylor’s participation. These refusals eliminated crucial points from Taylor in his pursuit of the 1898 Championship of America. At the time, the title was between Bald and Taylor. The LAW threatened to blacklist tracks for not adhering to its sanctioning rules. Many of the riders, however, decided to form a cycling union and a new cycling organization: the American Racing Cyclists Union and the National Cycling Association (NCA). Taylor reluctantly signed on to ride under the new NCA with the caveat that races not be held on Sundays. This “gentlemen’s agreement” was broken, as the first race was scheduled for Sunday in St. Louis. “I steadfastly refused to ride on Sunday as it was against my religious scruples,” he wrote.
Taylor did not compete, and Bald lost. Heading into the final portion of the National Circuit in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Bald was ahead in the title chase by only two points. When Taylor arrived at the Riverview Hotel in Cape Girardeau, he was informed by the very man, Henry Dunlop, who invited him to compete in the race and stay at the hotel that he couldn’t room there due to his skin color. Taylor had been pushed far enough and went home the next morning. His exit was a forfeiture of the title run, and it also resulted in a fine from the NCA and a potential lifetime ban.
The media came to his defense, as it often did. “Major Taylor is a stern reality. He is here in flesh and blood, and must be dealt with as a human being, and he is entitled to every human right,” wrote the Philadelphia Press. The Syracuse Journal added that “public sentiment is with Taylor, but its sympathy is not pronounced enough to have much weight with a body of riders who are jealous of Major Taylor’s successes, and are determined to keep him out at all costs.”
Public sentiment, however, did prove enough to force the Executive Committee of the American Racing Cyclists Union to drop its lifetime ban and only fine Taylor $500. But Taylor would not crater to such a demand and threatened retirement. “It would have made no difference to me whether the fine was $5 or $5,000,” he wrote.
It was not the first or the last time Taylor’s principles triumphed over his love of the sport. He had turned down big paydays, refused to compete or even attempt a new record on the Sabbath, and had now walked away from a near certain championship title. It was an example of his promise to reflect the “sterling qualities” of those champions who had supported him.
The fine, however, was paid by Fred Johnson, President of Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Company, after Taylor agreed to ride the company’s bicycles in the upcoming season.
A Champion Made
Taylor looked to have a “banner season” in 1899 and set his sights on something greater than a national championship. He would compete for the world championship before 18,000 fans at Queen’s Park in Montreal and would face the world’s best riders hailing from America, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Australia, including two old foes, Nat and Tom Butler.
As the riders took their places at the starting line, a hush fell over the crowd. The gun was raised. Knowing the stiff competition, Taylor admitted to being a “trifle nervous,” but “within only a few moments more that terrible nervous suspense would surely be over. Then all would know who was really the fastest bicycle rider in the world.”
The gun’s report echoed throughout the park, and the five racers took off in a flurry. Nat Butler quickly took the lead while Taylor moved toward the back. Each racer worked to get the best position before making his jump into the lead. Jumping too early would spell defeat just as much as jumping too late. It was a science that each had perfected. Taylor’s one worry was that he might get caught in a “pocket” as he had in the half-mile race, which caused his late jump and second-place finish.
The two Butler brothers were of the utmost concern as they “worked with clock-like precision” to place opponents in pockets and adjust their speeds and positions in order to favor each other. The five riders zoomed down the home stretch to the rising roar of the crowd. Taylor was nearly “caught in a very bad pocket” but avoided it “only by the narrowest margin” when he overtook Canadian champion Angus McLeod. There were only the Butler brothers left in his way.
“As we swung into the home stretch our three front wheels were almost abreast,” Taylor recalled. “At a glance I realized that for the first time in my life I was going to be able to make that last supreme effort to break the tape first without interference of any kind. In a word, the four of us came down that home stretch much the same as sprinters are confined to their lanes in a 100-yard dash. It was a fair field―there was no crowding or elbowing, it was a case of winning or losing the world’s championship on merit alone.”
The crowd’s roar hit a fever pitch as Taylor hit the tape first by more than a full length ahead of Tom Butler. Taylor had never been more relieved or proud. He basked in the thunderous applause from the Montreal crowd as he took his victory lap. Munger’s promise to make Taylor into “the fastest bicycle rider in the world” had now “become a wonderful reality in such a spectacular manner.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.