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Marshall Taylor was an American track cyclist who began his amateur career while he was still a teenager in Indianapolis, Indiana. He became a professional racer in 1896, at the age of 18, and won the sprint event at the 1899 world track championships in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to become the first African American to achieve the level of world champion in the event. Taylor was American sprint champion in 1899 and 1900, and raced in the U.S., Europe, and Australasia. He retired in 1910, at the age of 32, to his home in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Taylor turned professional in 1896, at the age of eighteen, and soon emerged as the “most formidable racer in America.” Taylor’s first professional race took place in front of an 5,000 spectators on December 5, 1895. As a professional racer Taylor experienced racial prejudice as a black cyclist in a white-dominated sport. In November and December 1897, when the circuit extended to the racially-segregated South, local race promoters refused to let Taylor compete because he was black. Taylor asserted in his autobiography that prominent bicycle racers of his era often cooperated to defeat him, such as the Butler brothers (Nat and Tom) were accused of doing in the one-mile world championship race at Montreal in 1899. At the LAW races in Boston, shortly after Taylor had won the world championship, he accused the entire field that included Tom Cooper and Eddie Bald, among others for fouling him. Taylor complained after the event that he had been “bumped, jostled, and elbowed until I was sorely tried.” Racing promoter William A. Brady, who was also Taylor’s manager, chastised the other riders for their “rough treatment” of Taylor during the race.While some of Taylor’s fellow racers refused to compete with him, others resorted to intimidation, verbal insults, and threats to physically harm him. While racing in Savannah, Georgia in the Winter of 1898, he received a written threat saying “Clear out if you value your life”; the previous day Taylor had challenged three riders together to a race after one of them had said they “didn’t pace niggers.” Taylor recalled that ice water had been thrown at him during races and nails were scattered in front of his wheels. Taylor further stated in his autobiography that he had been elbowed and “pocketed” (boxed in) by other riders to prevent him from sprinting to the front of the pack, a tactic at which he was so successful. Taylor’s competitors also tried to injure him. One incident occurred after the one-mile Massachusetts Open race at Taunton on September 23, 1897; at the conclusion of the race, William Becker, who placed third behind Taylor in second place, tackled Taylor on the race track and choked him into unconsciousness. Becker, who claimed that Taylor had crowded him during the race, was temporarily suspended while the incident was investigated. Becker received a $50 fine as punishment for his actions, but was reinstated and allowed to continue racing. In another incident, which occurred on February 1904, when Taylor was competing in Australia, he was seriously injured on the final turn of a race when fellow competitor Iver Lawson veered his bicycle toward Taylor and collided with his front wheel. Taylor crashed and lay unconscious on the track before he was taken to a local hospital and later made a full recovery. Lawson was suspended from racing anywhere in the world for a year as a result of his actions.
In the early years of his professional racing career, Taylor’s reputation continued to increase as he competed in and won more races. Newspapers began referring to him as the “Worcester Whirlwind,” the “Black Cyclone,” the “Ebony Flyer,” the “Colored Cyclone,” and the “Black Zimmerman,” among other nicknames. He also gained popularity among the spectators. One of his biggest supporters was President Theodore Roosevelt who kept track of Taylor throughout his seventeen-year racing career.
At the 1899 world championships in Montreal, Canada, Taylor won the one-mile sprint, to become the first African American to win a world championship in cycling. Taylor was the second black athlete, after Canadian bantamweight boxer George Dixon of Boston, to win a world championship in any sport. Taylor won the one-mile world championship sprint in a close finish a few feet ahead of Frenchman Courbe d’Outrelon and American Tom Butler. In addition, Taylor placed second in the two-mile championship sprint at Montreal behind Charles McCarthy and won the half-mile championship race. Because the finals were held on Sundays, when Taylor refused to compete for religious reasons. Following his record-setting successes in the U.S. and Canada, Taylor agreed to a European tour. In 1901, Taylor made his first trip to Europe but returned to compete in the U.S. after the conclusion of the European spring racing season. During his European tour, Taylor still refused to race on Sundays, when most of the finals were held, because of his religious convictions. It was reported that Taylor took a Bible with him when he traveled and began each race with a silent prayer because of his religious beliefs. Taylor was popular among the European race fans and news reporters: “Everywhere he went he was mobbed, talked about, or written up.” In 1901, Taylor won 42 of the 57 European races he entered. A highlight of Taylor’s European tour in 1901 were two match races with French champion Edmond Jacquelin at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Jacquelin won the first match by two lengths; Taylor won the second match by four lengths. Taylor also participated in a European tour in 1902, when he entered 57 races and won 40 of them to defeat the champions of Germany, England, and France. In addition to racing in Europe, Taylor also competed in Australia and New Zealand in 1903 and 1904. In February 1903, for example, Taylor competed in the Sydney handicap for a $5,000 prize. A headline that flashed worldwide was “Rich Cycle Race.” During his world tour in 1903 Taylor earned prize money estimated at $35,000 ($923,352 in 2015 chained dollars).
Taylor was still breaking records in 1908, but his age was starting to “creep up on him.” He retired from racing in 1910 at the age of 32. When Taylor returned to his home in Worcester at the end of his racing career, his estimated net worth was $75,000 ($1,978,611 in 2015 chained dollars) to $100,000 ($2,638,148 in 2015 chained dollars). Taylor won his final competition, an “old-timers race” among former professional racers, in New Jersey in September 1917.
Little is known of Taylor’s life after the failure of his marriage and his move to Chicago around 1930. Taylor spent the final two years of his life in poverty, selling copies of his autobiography to earn a meagre income and residing at the YMCA Hotel in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. In March 1932, Taylor suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized in the Cook County Hospital’s charity ward, where he died on June 21, 1932, at age 53. The official cause of on his death certificate is “Nephrosclerosis and Hypertension,” contributed by “Chronic myocarditis”. His wife and daughter, who survived him, did not immediately learn of his death and no one claimed his remains. He was initially buried at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Thornton Township, Cook County, Illinois, (near Chicago) in an unmarked pauper’s grave. In 1948, a group of former professional bicycle racers used funds donated by Frank W. Schwinn, owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Co. at that time, to organize the exhumation and reburial of Taylor’s remains in a more prominent location at the cemetery. The plaque at the grave reads: “Dedicated to the memory of Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor, 1878–1932. World’s 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 the race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten.”.