Marshall Walter Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 26, 1878. He received his first bicycle from the wealthy white family that employed his father.
He earned the nickname of “Major” because of the soldier’s uniform he wore while performing cycling stunts for a bike shop in Indianapolis. While working in the bicycle factory of a white cyclist, Taylor won his first amateur race at the age of 13.
It wasn’t long before he was competing in international races. He became the American sprint champion at age 18 in 1898. He went on to repeat that victory two more times.
In 1899, he reached the top of the cycling world by winning the world title in the 1-mile sprint. With that, he became the first African-American world champion in cycling and only the second African-American world champion in any sport.
What made his accomplishments even more impressive was the fact that he was a Black man who overcame open racism and overt threats of violence by those who did not want to see him succeed because track cycling at that time was dominated by the Europeans.
He established several world records during his 16 years of competition. In the 168 races in which he competed, he finished first in 117 and finished second in 32.
In 1902, he married Daisy Morris. His only child, a girl named Sydney, was born in Australia in 1904 (she passed away in 2005 at the age of 101 leaving one son, 5 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.)
In 1910, he retired from racing at age 32. His cycling fortune was drained quickly by failed business ventures and illness.
Major Taylor moved to Chicago in 1930 and tried selling his autobiography, “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.” He died penniless on June 21, 1932 at the age of 53 in Chicago and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Years later in 1948, Frank Schwinn donated money to have his remains moved to a more prominent area of Mount Glenwood cemetery.
The bronze plaque on the new site of his grave reads: “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.”
To celebrate his achievements, the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis, one of the world’s most renowned cycling venues, was named in his honor. He was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989.
In 1996, USA Cycling posthumously awarded Taylor the Korbel Lifetime Achievement Award which was accepted by his great-granddaughter, Karen Brown-Donovan. In 2003, he was posthumously named a Sports Ethics Fellow by the Institute for International Sport