ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Major Taylor: The First African-American Sports Champ

Updated on November 11, 2019
Gill Schor profile image

Gill Schor is the publisher of Sports History Magazine, a publication that features engaging articles related to sports history.

Major Taylor, the first African-American champion in any sport. Winning gold in track cycling at the 1899 World Championships, he preceded Jack Johnson in boxing and Jesse Owens in track & field.
Major Taylor, the first African-American champion in any sport. Winning gold in track cycling at the 1899 World Championships, he preceded Jack Johnson in boxing and Jesse Owens in track & field.

Before there was Jack Johnson in the boxing ring, or Jesse Owens on the running track, there was Major Taylor on the bicycle. Predating 20th century’s most accomplished black athletes who are household names, Taylor was a cycling sprinter in the post-decades of the Civil War, becoming world champion just 34 years after slavery was abolished in the United States. Largely forgotten today, Taylor was a pioneering legend who came up in an era when bike racing was the most popular sport in America and riders were the highest paid athletes in the country.

In the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century, Americans were fascinated with the bicycle. About 300 companies were churning out bikes and for the first time in 1893, more bikes were sold to the general public than horses. Roughly 1/3 of all patents that were filed at the time were also related to the pedaling contraption. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony said that cycling did more to liberate women than anything else in the world. After getting on a bike and recognizing its hazards, Mark Twain nevertheless quipped in his characteristic glib style, “Get one...you will not regret it, if you live”. Until the advent of the automobile in the early 1900’s, cycling had a widespread impact on transportation, manufacturing and even fashion.

Taylor's first pro race was at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of indoor cycling...

The son of a black soldier who fought in the Union Army, Marshall Walter Taylor was born on November 26, 1878 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He got his first bike when he was 12 and quickly became a trickster on two wheels. As a teenager, he worked in bike shops training riders and performing stunts to lure customers while wearing a military jacket, which earned him the nickname “Major”. Taylor struck up a friendship with a white mentor, Louis “Birdie” Munger, a former high-wheel racer and owner of the Munger Cycling Manufacturing Company. The elder saw championship potential in Taylor and coached him to become a racer.

Only 18 years old, Taylor participated in his first professional race in 1896 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden (MSG), the mecca of indoor cycling. A day after making his debut and winning a ½ mile handicap race inside MSG’s velodrome, he took on the grueling 6-day endurance race in the same venue. Fast, dangerous and occasionally deadly, the race drew thousands of paying spectators who came to watch a field of cyclists battle extreme mental and physical fatigue as they raced around a sloped wooden track for six straight days and nights. Prostrated after completing 1,732 miles and taking 8th place, Taylor dropped out on the final day and decided that his talents lay in sprint rather than distance.

He faced endless racist taunts during competitions...

Despite the popularity of competitive cycling, the racial barriers of the Jim Crow era still kept African-Americans out of the dominant white sport. Taylor routinely encountered prejudices from riders, in addition to track owners who feared that other cyclists would refuse to compete if Taylor were in the chase. As a youngster, he won his first amateur race at 13 and after breaking the 1-mile amateur track record at 15, he was booed by the crowd and barred from the track because of his skin color. In future races, the aspiring cyclist would endure harsh treatments such as ice water thrown in his face, nails tossed in front of his tires, and illegal maneuvers by racers who boxed him in to prevent a sprint to the finish line. Remarkably, despite the endless taunts, attacks and dirty tricks, Taylor rose to become “the most formidable racer in America”.

Munger urged him to move to Worcester, Massachusetts where the racial climate was more tolerant and where Munger set up a bike factory. Taylor worked and raced for his employer and then joined the racing circuit, riding for various professional teams. Between 1896 and 1908 he broke at least 30 records in the 1-mile and under categories, at tracks located in Manhattan Beach (NYC), Hampden Park (Springfield, MA), Woodside Park (Philadelphia), Garfield Park (New Jersey), MSG, and Velodrome Buffalo (Paris, France). With some tracks accommodating as many as 25,000 viewers, cycling was big business and racers were the highest paid athletes in professional sports.

Unlike in the U.S., the young American was openly embraced in Europe...

After winning gold in track cycling at the 1899 World Championships in Montreal, Taylor became the first African-American world champion in any sport. Solicited by numerous promoters, he turned down a $15,000 offer to compete in France due to his strict religious beliefs that he didn’t race on Sundays. A substantial sum of money at the time (roughly $450,000 today), the highest paid baseball players such as Ty Cobb didn’t sign a $15,000 contract until 1914 and Babe Ruth only saw his first $20,000 salary in 1920.

Two years later, the French buckled and agreed to have Taylor race off Sundays. The celebrated athlete who changed the racing schedule in France, the global epicenter of cycling, made his way across the Atlantic where he became an instant hit on the track as well as with the fans and newspaper reporters. He won 42 of the 57 races he entered and the following year he participated in a European tour, emerging victorious in 40 of 57 competitions against the best riders on the continent. A 1903 world tour, which included Australia and New Zealand, earned him prize money of $35,000. The American champ who couldn’t get served in restaurants and hotels in his own country because he was black was openly embraced abroad.

With age creeping, Taylor retired in 1910 with an estimated net worth of $75-$100,000. Sadly, his investments floundered in later life and the former cycling legend died in poverty at the age of 53 (1932). Initially buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave outside Chicago, his body was exhumed in 1948 and given a respectable resting place with funds donated by Frank Schwinn, owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company.

© 2019 Gill Schor

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)