Major Taylor

Major Taylor

(1878-1932)

DJ Name: Major Key

Major Taylor loved to ride his bicycle. He loved to ride his bike. He loved to ride it where he liked. BIIIIICYCLE BIIIIIIIIIIICYCLE. Yes, that’s right, Major Taylor was quite the bike racer, but unfortunately it was often difficult for him to ride it where he liked because he was a Black biker in a racist country. And though that aspect is a major bummer, Major kept on pedaling and he prevailed on the bike path to become the second Black athlete to hold a world championship in any sport. Before each race, Major slipped on his Beats headphones and got into the zone by queueing up this playlist of Major Pump-Up Jams. Now, shuffle them up and get in the zone as we take a look back at Major’s life: 

Major Taylor was born Marshall Walter Taylor on November 26, 1878, in Indianapolis, Indiana (just a few miles from Pawnee where his mom worked at the Sweetums factory. Just kidding.) His dad, Gilbert Taylor, was a farmer and a Civil War veteran and he worked as a carriage driver for the Southards, a wealthy white family. Many people asked, “what’s eating Gilbert Taylor?” and the answer was low income and eight children who took up a lot of time, money and energy. His mom, Saphronia Kelter Taylor, birthed five girls and three boys and often sent Major to work with his dad to accompany him on his carriage rides. Major and the Southards’ son, Daniel, were the same age and they became pals. Between the ages of 8 and 12, Major lived with the Southards and was tutored alongside Daniel at their home. They also gave Major his first bicycle, which were initially called “swiftwalkers,” and had hit the market not too long ago in 1817. Living with the Southard fam was dope, but all dope things must come to an end. The Southards moved to the Windy City AKA Chicago AKA Chi Town when Major was 12, and he was then sent back home to live with his parents. That’s when the real world began to hit.

“I was dropped from the happy life of a ‘millionaire kid’ to that of a common errand boy, all within a few weeks,” Major wrote in his autobiography. While Major was still a minor, he began to teach himself tricks on his bike and also worked as a paperboy. He would hop on his bike, barefoot, every morning and ride around for hours delivering newspapers. Tom Hay, who owned the bicycle shop Hay and Willits, paid Major to hang out in front of their bike shop and do some tricks. He was no one-trick pony, though, he was a several-trick pony. One of his tricks was that he wore a military uniform while doing said tricks, and that’s how he got the nickname “Major.” As he got more popular, he earned a raise at the bike store and was able to quit his job as a paperboy. One could say he was like ‘wheely’ good. 

As Major got more popular, Tom Hay approached him and said “hey, why don’t you enter into this 10-mile bike race?” (casual). Tom hoped that Major participating in the race would drum up support for the store, but he didn’t really expect Major to have major success. “Just ride up the road a little way, it will please the crowd, and you can come back as soon as you get tired,” Tom said. But Major put pedal to the metal and got the medal. He pushed and pushed and pedaled and pedaled and he did it six seconds faster than everyone else. He collapsed as soon as he crossed the finish line, but he got the gold and after that moment he was bold.

By 13 — still a minor! — Major was competing in races all over the Midwest, and he even got a write-up in the New York Times. Major kept his job at Hay and Willits, too, giving bicycle lessons. It was now the 1890s, and America was experiencing a bike boom. It was the Gilded Age, and that meant buying things you couldn’t afford and waiting for the economy to collapse upon the Gold Standard. Anywhoooo, this was good for Major because a boom in biking meant more attention on him and his skills, since he was becoming quite the skilled biker amidst the boom. However, because he was Black, it wasn’t smooth sailing in the bike lane. He was barred from joining many local bike clubs, and many white cyclists were not so welcoming toward him.

By 1896, Major had a new mentor: Louis D. “Berdi” Munger, who owned the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts. Berdi signed Major up for an event and smuggled him into the whites-only races at the Capital City Cycling Club in Indianapolis. Though he couldn’t officially compete, he could still cycle and show the participants what he was made of. Major was 17, and he was the fastest: he zoomed past everyone else, shaving eight seconds off the mile track time. In another heat, the one-fifth-mile race, he knocked two-fifths of a second off the world record, which was currently held by profesh racer, Ray McDonald. Every fifth of a second counts! His times might not have been put on the official record, but everyone in the stands and on the racetrack could tell that Major had won big-time.

Berdi’s smuggle stunt angered quite a few officials, though, and Major was banned from that Indianapolis racetrack. Womp womp, but also whatever because Major was a major talent by that point. Later that year, he competed in New York City during a six-day race at Madison Square Garden. Yes, he literally rode on his bike round and round and round the circle for six days straight and, by the end, had travelled the distance from about New York to Houston, but was still just on the velodrome at Madison Square Garden. He came in eighth, and though he experienced some hallucinations toward the end, it was a major accomplishment. “I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand,” Major recalled

Berdi was no quitter, either. He moved Major to Worcester to place him as his star cyclist on the cycling team he was putting together. But while Major was in Massachusetts in 1898, his mom passed away. Devastated, he sought baptism and became a devout member of the John Street Baptist Church in Worcester. As his teenage years came to a close, Major entered the ranks of professional racers. He’d scored seven world records, won 29 of the 49 races he had entered and even captured the world championship of cycling in 1899 earning him the nickname representative of his home, “Worcester Whirlwind.” This made him only the second Black athlete to capture a world champion title, behind Canadian boxer George Dixon who’d won his title a decade earlier.

As Major continued competing into the 1900s — we’re now in the ~Progressive Era~ Major encountered some hateful humans. Because of his skin color, he wasn’t allowed to compete in the South, and even when he was allowed to enter a race, many of the white riders purposefully jostled him or refused to compete against him. Spectators threw ice and nails at him as he raced by, and he was even assaulted by a jealous fellow competitor after one race. It didn’t take long for Berdi and the team to realize that Major would be much better off racing in Europe, where perhaps he wouldn’t experience quite as much prejudice and hate. Plus, some of the strongest riders in the world competed there, and Major would be better matched across the pond. But Major refused to leave America. Prestigious competitions in France were held on Sundays (bunch of heathens!), and Major, with his newfound religious devotion, could not participate on the Sabbath.

But the Europeans wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, so they moved the races from the Lord’s Day. So in 1901, Major packed up the basket on his bike and cycled over the Atlantic. If Jesus could walk on water, Major could bike the ocean. OK, so that might be an exaggeration. But he did make his way across the pond to compete in his first ever European cycling tour and he was mighty popular with the fans everywhere he went. By the end of 1901, he had won 42 of the 57 races he entered, dethroning the reigning cycling champions who hailed from places like France, Germany, England and so on. Major Taylor returned again in 1902 to keep his throne, and won 40 of the 57 races he entered. In addition to Europe, he also participated (and won, duh!) in races in Australia and New Zealand. Major quickly became a cycling world star, and earned that good good prize money which was about $30,000 a year. 

When he wasn’t on the bike during the early 1900s, Major was with his wifey, Daisy Morris, who traveled with him (#1 fan goals). They had a daughter named Rita Sydney in 1904. Why yes, she was named after the Australian city because that’s where she was born AKA where Major Taylor on the course became Papa Taylor off the course. Eventually, Major did take a much needed two-year break from cycling, but he returned to the sport in 1907 and set two new records in Paris as if he never stopped pedaling. Major continued to claim those major titles in the cycling world until he finally retired in 1910 at the age of 32. 

Physically he was tired, but mentally he was also drained. The Worcester Whirlwind lived a whirlwind of a cycling career, and fought on and off the velodrome to receive the respect he deserved. As a successful Black athlete, he was threatened by fellow competitors and (fake) fans, constantly insulted and sometimes attacked during the races. As he retired, he shared, “Life’s too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart,” and years later published an autobiography titled The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World which recounts his competitions, experiences in and out of the races and mainly aimed to inspire fellow Black athletes to channel the prejudice as an “inspiration to struggle on to the heights in their chosen vocations.” 

During the latter half of his life, Major Taylor experienced unsuccessful business ventures and financial difficulties. He was hit hard by the stock market crash in 1929 and had to sell his home in Worcester and many of his personal items to pay off his debts. He and his wife separated, and Major moved to Chicago where he sold his autobiography door-to-door. In March 1932, Major suffered a heart attack and passed away a few months later on June 21 at the age of 53. He was buried in an unmarked grave; however, in 1948 a group of professional cyclers convinced Frank Schwinn, owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, to pay for the exhumation, relocation and reburial of Taylor’s remains to the cemetery’s Memorial Garden of the Good Shepherd. There his grave reads, “Worlds champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way—Without hatred in his heart—An honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete.  A credit to his race who always gave out his best—Gone but not forgotten.” Major Taylor’s accomplishments and poise throughout his athletic career on and off the velodrome and cycling courses paved the way for many a Black athlete to excel to a major level of excellence inspired by the man who was once banned from competing in the Indianapolis Capital City Cycling Club because he was Black, but whose name now proudly sits on the outside of the cycling building in that same city as the “Major Taylor Velodrome.” 

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