INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In a world full of black international sports superstars, Marshall “Major” Taylor was one of the first. He was a trailblazer who blazed his own trail as a famous cyclist in the late 18e century and the early 1900s.
Taylor was born on November 26, 1878, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Gilbert Taylor, a veteran Union soldier in the Civil War, and Sophronia Taylor. He was one of eight children. Her parents moved from Kentucky to Indiana after the war.
Indiana State Museum social curator Kisha Tandy digs deeper into Taylor’s childhood and what it was like for him growing up.
“He would go to work with his father [who] worked as a coachman for the Southard family, Albert Southard. They had a son named Daniel. And Daniel was about the same age as Major.
From age eight to 12, Taylor spent much of her time with the well-to-do family, keeping Daniel company. Eventually, the family employed him as their son’s companion, giving him the same clothes and education. But the biggest gift was yet to come…a bike.
Tandy explains how the gesture showed Taylor’s value to the family: “When Daniel got a bike, Major got a bike too. And so he would learn to ride a bike…and he would learn to trick ride.
During the 1800s and early 19e century, buying a bicycle was like buying a car. And there’s no doubt that Taylor’s situation was unique for a black boy in Indiana at that time.
But soon his comfortable life would be turned upside down.
In 1890, the Southards moved to Chicago, leaving Taylor behind. Based on Taylor’s autobiography The fastest cyclist in the world, he went from the life of a happy “millionaire child” to an ordinary errand boy in a matter of weeks. But he would soon find himself on a new path, one that would change the course of his life.
In Taylor’s autobiography, he describes the day that changed his life: “I went to the bike shop owned by Hay & Willts in Indianapolis, to do a minor repair on my machine after the repair was done, I did a fancy montage on my bike in the middle of the store and immediately caught Mr. Hay’s eye. (Taylors 2).
Mr. Hay was so impressed with Taylor that he offered her a new job, paying $6 a week and a $35 bicycle. Hoping that her talents would attract more customers to her store. Every day at four in the afternoon, Taylor would perform stunts in military uniform outside the store, earning him the nickname “Major”.
And with a push from Mr Hay, he entered his first race at 13 and won. By age 15, he was breaking records in amateur competitions across the state.
Taylor’s journey accelerated after coming to the attention of former champion cyclist Louis “Birdie” Munger, who believed strongly in Taylor’s racing ability.
In return for training, Taylor began doing domestic work around Munger’s house. By 1898 and with Munger’s help, he had already set seven world records. Despite all her victories, Taylor still couldn’t escape the harsh reality of racism.
“There were a lot of cyclists who had difficulty racing against him, both because of the speed and the race. Many cyclists would cause [him] physical injury. There was a moment when he was shocked almost unconscious; another point, where he got nudged,” Tandy said, describing some of his experiences.
However, he became the best athlete in the sport and in great demand. Taylor negotiated his own contracts and carved out a place for himself among the wealthiest black people in the country. Overseas racing promoters have taken notice. He then left the United States and raced in many places, earning the title of international superstar.
Taylor’s winning streak would continue from 1901 to 1910. His career was short-lived as he retired at age 32.
After his racing career, he embarked on other projects as an inventor. After various debts and serious illnesses, he lost most of his fortune in the 1920s. Two years before Taylor’s death in 1932, he wrote and self-published his autobiography. He was 53 years old.
Impoverished and buried in an unmarked grave, a group of professional racing cyclists donated money to have Taylor’s body properly buried. During the 1980s Indianapolis honored its local hero with the completion of the Major Taylor Velodrome at Marian University.
It celebrates the man who blazed his own trail.