Bicycles became the rage in the 1890’s so much so that there were professional bike racers in all the big cities in the United States and the greatest of all the competitors was the African American Major Marshall Taylor. Marshall Taylor’s grandparents had been slaves. His father fought for the North during the Civil War.
Marshall’s family moved to Indiana where they could make a better living for themselves. His father got a job with the wealthy Southard family in Indianapolis. Young Marshall became good friends with their son Dan who was the same age. They dressed like twins and Marshall was treated like a brother. His playmate had a bike and the Southard family made sure that Marshall had one as well. Marshall would live in their big house and he was a welcome guest in their home and was treated as part of the family. He would stay with them until they moved east. Taylor became so talented with his riding skills, that he was hired by Tom Hay to perform stunts in front of his bike shop in Indianapolis. He gave Taylor a military coat to wear while he was performing and the nickname Major would follow him for the rest of his life.
Major lived and worked in the bike shop. Besides getting paid, he was allowed to practice his riding skills. He was a natural and during the race in Indianapolis, his boss showed him the medal he could win and of course with that encouragement, Major was victorious and this began his racing career.
Taylor would later move to Worchester, Massachusetts with his good friend, “Birdie” Munger who was opening a bike factory there and become a racer on Munger’s team. Soon after, with Munger’s encouragement, Major would participate in a race in Madison Square Garden in New York City. He did well and won a great deal of money. He would later compete in Europe and Australia. Major would have to deal with discrimination wherever he went. Some would throw nails or ice in front of him as he was racing or do anything to keep him from winning such as tackling him to the ground. Yet, Major was always calm and he felt life was too short to hold grudges against others.
Taylor later would marry and have a daughter. His racing prowess would give him a great deal of money until the Great Depression when he lost everything. He lived near Chicago in Brownville. He died at the age of 53 in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1932. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Schwinn Bicycle Company donated funds to have his remains exhumed and with the help of former bike racers, he was buried in Mt. Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Illinois. His monument stands in Worchester, Massachusetts. An Indianapolis’s bike racing track bears his name as well. His daughter died in 2005. Sydney Taylor Brown lived to be 101. She left a son and five grand children.
Marshall influenced the sport of bike racing with his tremendous will and talent. He was a great man of courage who would never give up fighting the battles of prejudice and discrimination. He helped to change an era and made the bicycle more popular, influencing city life for the better giving especially women more freedom.
In my historical novel, The Adventures of Francie Fitzgerald by Victoria Kamar Olivett we see America becoming more modern in 1885 with the invention of the telephone, electric lights and the bicycle. All of these developments transformed our world. Major Marshall Taylor would also modernize and transform America one race at a time.