AN ALMOST UNSUNG HERO
Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932) had a modest share of fame in his lifetime. He was the subject of film and music in his day and was memorialized via historic markers in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at his gravesite in Chicago, and by the naming of the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis and Major Taylor Boulevard in Worcester. But if you mention his name today, you’re likely to get a blank stare.
Unless you’re talking to a bicyclist, that is.
Major Taylor, once called “the fastest man in the world,” was a Black American professional cyclist. He started out working in the bicycle shops of Indiana and soon began racing both on tracks and on roads. As an amateur, he was already breaking track records.
Taylor was only 18 when he turned pro. At first he participated in such events as six-day races along with other track challenges, but just a year later he lasered in on sprint racing, began competing in a national racing circuit, and proving his superior ability as he won race after race. Over the following year he set numerous world records in distances ranging from a quarter mile to two miles.
When he won the sprint event at the 1899 world track championship he set a different sort of record: He became the first person of color to become a cycling world champion and only the second Black athlete to win a world championship in any sport. (The first was George Dixon, a Canadian boxer, in 1892.) In 1899 and 1900 he was a national spring champion. From 1901 to 1904 he raced not only in the U.S. but in Europe and Australia, showing up the cyclists who, till then, had been acclaimed as the world’s best riders.
After dropping out of active competition for two and a half years, he got back into it in 1907 but retired for good in 1910 at the age of 32.
Fate was not kind to the once-acclaimed champion. The last years of his life found him living in poverty, a serious bring-down for a man who had once garnered cheers, applause, and plaudits, headlines and happiness.
While living out his last two years in Chicago, he suffered a fatal heart attack and was buried in the Windy City.
Famous in his heyday, some time after retirement Taylor sank into near oblivion outside of cycling circles. Today if you mention “Major Taylor,” it’s unlikely the name will ring a bell even among many amateur cyclists.
But his was a career, however short lived, that made Black America proud.
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Do you know an unsung hero? Perhaps a teacher who has inspired countless students to succeed, a single dad who raised three kids on his own while holding down a job, a retired first responder who came to the rescue of someone who had a heart attack in public, a minister who grew his or her church from 10 members to 300, or someone who rose from poverty to become mayor of the town?
Those are just a few examples. Your Hometown Hero may have an entirely different story. But our point is, it just might be worthy of a book. (Let us decide!)
AcuteByDesign is launching its Hometown Heroes series. If you know someone who you think might qualify, even if you’re not sure, we want to hear from you. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org tell us about your Hometown Hero.
He or she just might be the subject of our next book and get the recognition they deserve!