Major Taylor, the ‘Black Cyclone’

Herb Boyd | 1/29/2015, 11:22 a.m.
Not many folks today can cite chapter and verse on Taylor and his phenomenal feats that began in the 19th ...
Major Taylor

Special to the AmNews

I was pleasantly surprised when a good friend asked me if I had ever heard of Major Taylor. Yes, I told him, and he began to tick off what he knew of the great African-American cyclist.

Not many folks today can cite chapter and verse on Taylor and his phenomenal feats that began in the 19th century, particularly with cycling—unless you are talking about Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France—long ago a thing of the past.

Marshall “Major” Taylor was born in 1898 in Indianapolis to poor parents with eight children. A significant practice of the slavery his grandfather endured continued into Taylor’s early life when he was made a companion to Dan Southard, the son of his father’s employer. As an “adoptive” child of the Southards, when the family moved to Chicago, Taylor was left behind with only the gift of a bicycle from his former keepers.

But it was a boon to the energetic young boy, who used the bicycle to peddle newspapers, sometimes riding barefoot for miles. When he wasn’t earning money on the bike, he was learning all sorts of trick riding that brought him to the attention of the owner of a bicycle shop. The owner hired Taylor, dressed him in a military uniform—thus the nickname “Major”—and asked him to perform in front of the shop to attract customers.

“He rode his bicycle to and from work, 25 miles each way,” daughter Sydney Taylor Brown told a reporter. “That’s why his legs were so strong.”

This was done to such remarkable success that he quit delivering papers, bought a new bike and improved his riding skills. The shop’s owner, always looking for ways to build his business, entered Taylor in a 10-mile bicycle race, something the young man—he was just 13—had never done before. He won the race handily, and while he won a medal and collapsed at the end, it was the beginning of his racing career.

Taylor’s emergence was a timely one because bicycle racing was fast becoming a major sport. No matter how fast he was during this golden age of cycling, he could not speed by the racial discrimination. While he was permitted to compete in stunt riding, he was barred from joining the prestigious bicycle clubs, where he could have achieved even more fortune and fame.

If he wasn’t allowed to enter big time events, Taylor found many opportunities to demonstrate his speed and capability. In one contest, where his sponsor smuggled him into the race, Taylor went around the track, breaking records at one-mile and at one-fifth of a mile in back-to-back races. At 17, he was living up to the press notices that he was the “Black Cyclone.”

Near the dawn of the 20th century, and by the time he was in his 20s, Taylor was a professional rider of national prominence, having won 29 of the 49 races he entered. In 1899, he won the world championship of cycling. Such acclaim placed him on a plateau with great Black boxers of the era, including heavyweight immortal Jack Johnson.