Worcester, Mass.
July 23, 1995

"Worcester Whirlwind" overcame bias

By Lynne Tolman

   Indianapolis has the Major Taylor Velodrome, but Worcester, where the 1899 world champion bicycle racer lived during his glory days, only has a stretch of Mill Street designated as the Major Taylor Bikeway.
   Marshall W. Taylor was nicknamed "Major" as a youth because he wore a military uniform when he performed bicycling stunts outside an Indianapolis bike shop.  The shop owner channeled the youth's talent into racing, and he won his first race in 1890, at age 11.*
   Bicycle manufacturer and racer Louis "Birdie" Munger hired Taylor as a live-in houseboy and factory helper and nurtured his racing career.  Munger became a father figure to Taylor as well as his employer and racing manager, and stood up for Taylor in the face of widespread racism.
   The League of American Wheelmen, then the governing body for the sport, banned blacks from amateur racing in 1894, just as bicycling's popularity surged.  But the move stimulated the growth of black cycling clubs and black races, which gave Taylor his early opportunities to prove his ability.
   By the time Munger decided to set up a factory in Worcester  -- in part to take advantage of the biking boom, but also to find a more tolerant atmosphere for his black protege -- Taylor was black champion of the United States.
   "I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing amont the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis," Taylor wrote in his 1929 autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World."  In Indy, he had not been allowed to join the YMCA because of his skin color, but the Y in Worcester admitted him and working out there helped him develop the upper body strength to match his formidable leg power.
   Back in Indianapolis in 1896, Taylor unofficially broke two world track records, for paced and unpaced 1-mile rides.  But his feat offended white sensibilities, and he was banned from that track.
   Still, his speed proved he was ready to turn professional, and the LAW's Racing Board in New York, where the color line had been opposed, agreed to register him as a pro.
   His first pro race was one of the toughest, most controversial contests, a six-day race at Madison Square Garden.  Begun in Britain in the days of the high-wheeled bicycle, the six-day was an agonizing endurance test:  Individuals would ride almost continuously for six days and six nights, stopping only to eat or nap, covering as many miles as possible on a steeply banked indoor track.
   Taylor's strategy was to ride for eight hours and sleep for one, and he succeeded in completing the race with that pattern, logging 1,732 miles.  The crowd loved him, but he would never again ride an event of that length.  His forte was sprinting.
   The "colored cyclone," as the newspapers called him, competed fiercely on the national circuit in 1897 but had to abandon the quest for sprint points champion when Southern race promoters refused him entry.
   Hostility from white riders had gone from conspiratorial race tactics to threats to physical assault.  One time a competitor pulled Taylor from his bike and choked him into unconsciousness.  Some of the press condemned the racist treatment Taylor received, but some articles suggested he was to blame, saying white riders were understandably angered by his racing prowess and his failure to keep in his place.
   The "Worcester Whirlwind" continued to win races nonetheless and set a 1-mile record in 1898 at age 19, clocking 1 minute, 41.4 seconds, paced, from a standing start.  The next year he won the world championship at a 1-mile race in Montreal, his first time outside the United States. He was the second black world champion in any sport, following bantamweight boxer George Dixon's title fights in 1890-91 and preceding heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson by nine years.  It would be nearly half a century before baseball's Jackie Robinson was integrated into the Brooklyn Dodgers.
   Later the same season, Taylor knocked the 1-mile record down to 1:19, reaching 45.46 mph on a track in Chicago.  The next season, in which Worcester opened a new track called the Coliseum, Taylor finally became American sprint champion.
   Some of the racial hostility had receded, but when Taylor bought a house on Hobson Avenue in Worcester's well-to-do Columbus Park, the neighbors were upset.  White residents offered to buy back the house for $2,000 more than Taylor had paid.  He refused.  In the end, the neighborhood grew to accept its distinguished black resident, whose racing career made him one of the wealthiest blacks in the country.
   Taylor embraced religion after his mother's death in 1898 and was a steadfast member of the John Street Baptist Church in Worcester.  For years, he resisted invitations to race in Europe because he refused to race on Sundays.  He finally signed a European contract in 1901, was welcomed as a hero in France and proceeded to beat every European champion.
   His international fame grew with a two-year racing stint in Australia, followed by a two-year hiatus and then a brief comeback in 1907.  He retired from racing in 1910 at age 32.
   Taylor found little success in the business world, and various debts and serious illness sapped Taylor's fortune in the 1920s.  Impoverished and estranged from his wife, Taylor headed to Chicago in 1930.  He stayed at the YMCA and tried to sell copies of his self-published autobiography.  His health deteriorated, and he died in 1932 in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital at age 53.  He was buried in an unmarked  pauper's grave.
   Sixteen years later, a group of former pro bike racers had his remains exhumed and placed in a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery with a bronze plaque that says:
  "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 his race who always gave out his best.  Gone but not forgotten."

* This article has been updated. Major Taylor wrote in his autobiography that he was 13 when he won his first race, but archived newspaper coverage that became available online after this article was first published shows that the race was in 1890 when Taylor was 11.

 "Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer"
an illustrated biography by Andrew Ritchie (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)

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updated 4/7/2003