Mural Artist :Shawn Michael Warren
‘’In a word I was a pioneer and therefore had to blaze my own trail.’’
Major Taylor The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World (1929)
More than a hundred years ago, when bicycle races drew crowds that filled Madison Square Garden, the biggest draw of all was Major Taylor.
As a superstar athlete in the most popular sport of his era, 1899 world bicycling champion Major Taylor saw his racing victories well chronicled in mainstream newspapers as well as cycling publications. Throughout his career, Major Taylor had embodied the role carved out for him by promoters, the press, and the fans, who fed off each other’s desires for drama and dollars. ‘’The Black Cyclone’’ was allowed on the starting line because of his exceptional talent, but he was constantly reminded, on and off the bike—as a Black American--of his place in the racial order.
He could compete against white riders as long as he didn’t act “uppity’’. White race promoters and competitors made it clear that his elite position was not to be used as a platform to overtly
demand that equality be extended to other members of his race. Taylor had to contend with a balancing act familiar to Black athletes in America before and since. The backlash against football player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, as well as current controversies related to NBA and WNBA player support of Black Lives Matter, attest to ongoing
disputes about Black athletes who take a stand against racial injustice.
In a post-Civil War era governed by Jim Crow laws in the South and overt racism nationwide,Major Taylor managed to be the first Black champion of the world in cycling and one of the first black world champions in any sport... His fame grew not only in America but in Europe and Australia as newspapers around the world reported his triumphs. The Boston Globe labeled him ‘’The World Beater’’ in a headline in August 1899.
We plan to produce a feature documentary film for national and international broadcast on the life and times of Major Taylor. The film will be a compelling combination of rare archival material,
modern live cinematography, interviews with acclaimed scholars, Award winning Authors ,bicycle historians and professional cyclists.
MASSACHUSSETTS CULTURAL COUNCIL
Mural Artist : Max Sansing
''A trip down memory lane reminded him how successful he had been . More important , Taylor believed the story of his life and struggles would inspire others young blacks to strive for success in a racist world.''
Marlene Targ Brill
Marshall''Major'' Taylor World Champion Bicyclist , 1899-1901 .
Although exceptional in many ways, the life of Major Taylor can be a lens through which to view the larger arc of African American and American history, from Reconstruction to the Great
Depression. His story reflects the aspirations, tenacity, and remarkable achievements of the post-Civil War generation, despite growing racial violence and the denial of basic rights in both the South and North.
At the same time, Taylor’s story is the tale of dreams deferred, of a generation of Black Americans who saw the promises of Reconstruction dashed on the rocks of virulent white supremacy.
Through this film we want to inspire hope, perseverance and hard work.
Migration to the North after the Civil War
Taylor’s father, a Civil War veteran, his mother and siblings migrated from Kentucky to Indiana, where Taylor was born in 1878. They were part of a migration of thousands of Black Southerners who left the South behind for the Midwest seeking greater opportunity after the Civil War. Taylor’s experiences in Indianapolis proved that racial violence and intimidation were not limited to former slave states like Kentucky.
When Taylor moved with Munger to Worcester in 1895, the global bicycle craze was well underway in the city. Black residents established their own club, the Albion Cycling Club, and competed in numerous local and state wide races. Upon his arrival in Worcester,Taylor rode for Albion and was the pride of the community. Taylor joined a small, activist black community largely composed of people with backgrounds similar to his own, as the children of Southern migrants. Whereas Taylor found Worcester’s racial climate refreshing compared to Indianapolis, Worcester’s people of color suffered from informal Jim Crow and a color bar in the city’s many industries that trapped people of color in low-paying service and unskilled positions.
Taylor’s experience in purchasing a house in Columbus Park reflects the racism that he and others experienced in Worcester which, at the turn of the twentieth century, seemed to worsen both locally and nationally.
But in his memoir, Taylor credited Worcester for granting him “a new lease on life” when he realized he would have “a fair chance to compete” in cycling races: “I shall always be grateful to Worcester as I am firmly convinced that I would shortly have dropped riding, owing to the disagreeable incidents that befell my lot riding in and around Indianapolis, were it not for the cordial manner in which the people received me.” In Worcester, Taylor joined the John Street Baptist Church, known as the city’s Black “Southern” congregation. The church’s pastor was the Rev. Hiram Conway, an advocate of the New Negro movement (see below). Conway regularly and passionately spoke out against Jim Crow and lynching and demanded equal rights for black Americans.
● Racism and the New Negro Movement:
From being barred from races and cycling organizations to outright violence on the track, Taylor was the target of nearly every form of
harassment conceivable. Once he was even thrown to the ground and choked to unconsciousness by an angry white rival. Notably, Taylor competed against white cyclists during what historians have referred to as “the nadir” of race relations in the United States, when white America blatantly broke the promises of equal rights, granted during
Reconstruction, to Black Americans and openly perpetrated violence against them. Taylor’s cycling career took place in the context of the establishment of segregation laws in the South and informal Jim Crow in the North; of the disenfranchisement of Black voters in every Southern state; and a horrific spike in lynching as white Southerners murdered thousands of African Americans. His world records and championships stand on their own as astounding achievements. But placed in the context of this historical moment, when a Black man perceived as challenging white supremacy in any way could mean an end to his life, Taylor’s
accomplishments are truly remarkable. In response to the “nadir” of race relations, the nascent New Negro movement, as noted above, offered a new strategy of racial advocacy, activism, and race pride.Taylor’s rise to world stardom occurred simultaneously with the incipient New Negro movement. Championed by W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter, among others, the New Negro exemplified the inherent dignity of the race, embodied the progress and achievement of African Americans since emancipation, and refused to accept the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington. The New Negro refused second-class citizenship and demanded the rights granted all American citizens. Notably, DuBois, who helped articulate this strategy, regularly featured Major Taylor as a representative New Negro in the pages of The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP. To African Americans nationally, as well as to his local Worcester community; Taylor’s victories were victories for people of color, his achievements proof that white supremacy was a hateful myth.
● Life abroad. Traveling and competing outside of the United States provided Taylor with a unique perspective. According to biographer Michael Kranish, “Few individuals of any race had traveled so broadly or seen so many cultures.” Taylor concluded, that Blacks “do not hate white people or others, but white people as a race do hate Negroes because of color.” Taylor’s global encounters reflected DuBois’ profound statement in The Souls of Black Folk at the dawn of a new century: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and African, in America and the islands of the sea.” Taylor confronted this global color line on the track, in
the press, and in finding accommodations when he raced abroad in Europe as well as Australia.
At times his fame helped him transcend insult and humiliation; at other times, he was treated like any other person of color. When he won the world championship in Montreal at the age of 20—his first time outside the U.S.--he thrilled at hearing “The StarSpangledBanner” played in his honor. In the U.S., bands serenaded Taylor with minstrel tunes. Taylor recalled in his memoir, “I never felt so proud to be an American before, and indeed, I felt even more American at that moment than I had ever felt in America.” As a world traveler he immersed himself in local art and culture and especially reveled in the wonders of Paris. Like the American black soldiers who would soon follow in World War I, Taylor found a breathing space in France and a welcome alternative to segregated America.
● Worsening racial tension and economic decline:
After leaving the track, Taylor struggled economically. Bad investments led to bankruptcy and the fortune he had accumulated dwindled to nothing. Moreover, with the rise of the automobile, the heyday of cycling ended
and Taylor’s triumphs faded from memory. Race relations in the nation and Worcester continued in a downward spiral. The KKK surged in the city, aiming their vitriol at immigrants, Blacks, Catholics, and Jews. Penniless, Taylor called upon some white patrons in Worcester who helped him publish his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. 1929
He sold the book door-to-door, without much success. Once a world champion, he now roamed Worcester a poignant figure. In one humiliating experience, the owners of a popular Worcester eatery kicked Taylor out of their restaurant. Many whites now appeared to view him as just another Black man, his remarkable achievements forgotten or ignored. And like nearly every other Black American, he was especially devastated by the Great Depression. After moving alone to Chicago, he died in a hospital charity ward in 1932 at the age of 53.