The forgotten story of Major Taylor, America’s first black sports hero and world champion way before Jack Johnson

Michael Eli Dokosi September 27, 2019
Marshall “Major” Taylor. Pic credit: JSTOR Daily

John Arthur Johnson, widely known as Jack Johnson, is loved for being the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing World Champion, reigning for seven years between 1908 right up to 1915.

There is also Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, who is revered for being the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

However, there is another African-American athlete whose exploits lifted the race but whose good deeds are largely forgotten.

Major Taylor (left) competed for two seasons in Australia, including against champion Don Walker (right), pictured here in 1903. Major Taylor Collection, Indiana State Museum

Before Johnson and Robinson, there was Marshall “Major” Taylor. Born November 26, 1878, his grandfather was a slave but by dint of hard and smart work, he became a champion cyclist who specialized in sprints around oval tracks in velodromes.

His dad got engaged as a carriage man for a rich White family in Indianapolis. The family had a son, Daniel, who was about the same age as Taylor and the two got on so well.

With the permission of his mother, Taylor moved to stay with the Southards who reckoned he could get advanced education and a better shot at life with them.

However, when the family sought to take Taylor along with them while relocating to Chicago, his mother refused. As a parting gift, he was given a bicycle. That would begin a lifelong affair involving Marshall Taylor and the two-wheelers.

Because of Taylor’s Africoid features, the racist whites ganged up to derail him even during races, with some warning him to stay off competitions or risk bodily harm.

Soon, Taylor became noted for doing tricks with bicycles. He got engaged by bicycle shop owners to clean their shops and then perform antics in the front of the shops to stimulate purchases.

In his 17-year cycling career, Taylor, who got the nickname “Major” from wearing a military uniform while doing his bike tricks, became the first international African-American superstar mobbed in Europe and eventually saluted in America, winning 47 of the 52 cycling competitions he enrolled in.

In 1898-1899, Taylor was at his deadly best as he racked up 7 world records, with his one-mile record standing for 28 years. In 1899, he was crowned national and international champion, making him just the second black world champion athlete, after bantamweight boxer George Dixon.

He collected medals and prize money in races around the world, including Australia, Europe and all over North America.

Major Taylor was one of the most photographed African Americans of his time. Here he poses for a promotional photograph sometime between 1903 and 1907.

Despite receiving death threats and often being ganged upon during races by his white competitors so one of them could coast to victory, he managed to device a means to escape being boxed in.

He was married and divorced and had a daughter. Taylor retired from cycling in 1910 with a net worth of $100,000 (now $2.6 million). However, the stock market crash of 1930 and the funding of his autobiography “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World,” caused him to fall on hard times.

He sold his house and properties and moved to Chicago, living at the YMCA. Here, he sold his book to get by but on June 21, 1932, he suffered a major heart attack and died. Unclaimed by his ex-wife and daughter, he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

It had to take a group of retired cyclists and a financer to retrieve his remains to bury him in an allocated tomb in 1948 to bring honour and dignity to the name of one of the greatest sportsmen.


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