He was a black pioneer in sports long before Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and even the legendary Jack Johnson. He did not play baseball as Robinson did, nor was he a pugilist as were Johnson and Louis, and although he participated in a sport where the main objective was speed, he was not a track and field person as was Jesse Owens.
His name was Marshall "Major" Taylor, and he rode a bicycle. He was born in 1878 near Indianapolis, Indiana and was soon recognized as a young black man with a natural talent for riding a bicycle. He had won a number of races in Indianapolis and Chicago, Illinois by the time he was only fifteen years old. Because of the unadulterated racism directed toward him in the Midwest, he moved to Worchester, Massachusetts, when he was seventeen, and he soon became one of the fastest American amateur cyclists. He turned professional in 1896 and became an overwhelming sensation. It is said that the spectators loved his bold courage. Because of his ability to ride and to win so often, as a black man he had to endure intense racist opposition. Yet he persevered and refused to allow racism to break his spirit.
In 1897 and 1898, because of rules that did not allow blacks to compete, Taylor was prevented from winning the American sprint championships. However, in 1899, after setting a number of world records, Taylor won the World Sprint Championship in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This achievement made him only the second black athlete to hold a title in any sport. (The first was bantamweight boxer George Dixon, who won the title fights in 1890-91.)
In 1901, Taylor had an exceptional European tour, where he defeated every European champion who challenged him. He raced for five seasons in Paris, France and two seasons in Australia. Retiring from racing in 1910, Taylor was characterized as “the fastest bicycle rider in the world,” even though his American career was extremely limited because of the color of his skin.
University of Washington