Marshall Walter Taylor was born on the outskirts of Indianapolis on November 26, 1878. He was one of eight children. Raised in the Indianapolis home of a wealthy white family, that employed his father, Marshall was destined for greatness.
At a young age, he was given the gift of a bicycle from the family. In 1891, at the age of thirteen he began to earn his first few dollars delivering newspapers. In his free time, Taylor would spend hours out back teaching himself to ride the bicycle. Day in and day out, he would practice balancing perfectly on the bike. He soon became so skilled at the art and took his riding a step further. He began teaching himself stunts. Spectators would often find him cycling through town performing his tricks. Crowds would gather around him in awe of his athleticism. He had a knack for making cycling look easy and fun.
Bike shop owner, Tom Hay, heard the crowds clamoring around Marshall and offered the young sensation a job. He offered to pay Marshall to perform his stunts each day in front of Hay's bike shop. The show would draw traffic into the store and increase interest in cycling. Marshall accepted Hay's offer and was given a red military uniform to wear.
The arrangement was a perfect match. Taylor got to do what he enjoyed and the store got an increase in revenue. Spectators later nicknamed the boy wonder 'Major Taylor' because of his crisp uniform.
At the bike shop, he also taught customers to ride a bicycle and helped with bicycle repairs. Looking for new challenges, he entered his first bike race in 1892. The win was his first step in string of events that will prove him the fastest cyclist in the world.
He first appeared as an amateur in races around Indianapolis and Chicago and later in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
Soon recognized as the "colored Sprint Champion of America", he turned professional and astonished everyone. He continued to work at the bike shop until prominent bicycle racer "Birdie" Munger, (who was planning to build a bicycle factory), coached him for his first professional racing success in 1896. Despite continuous bureaucracy and at times, physical opposition, he won his first national championship two years later and became world champion in 1899 in Montreal and American sprint champion in 1899 and 1900.
He held seven world records for speed. One record was the 1-mile record, when he completed one mile in 1 minute 41.4 seconds, but soon improved that record to 1 minute 19 seconds. By age 21, he was the second Black to be called World Champion of any sport behind boxer George Dixon's 1891 title bout.
In September 1900, allowed to compete in the National Championship Series, he took a series of races, becoming the American sprint champion, the fastest cyclist in the U.S.
He broke a series of world records and in 1901 received acclaim during a triumphant tour of Europe, the most international tour of European countries ever undertaken by a black American athlete. Against the best bicycle racers of the world, he enjoyed a position of unequaled supremacy. He was the world fastest bicycle racer for twelve years.
In 1902, he married Victoria Morris of New York and later had a daughter, Rita Sydney Taylor. He continued cycling, racing in Australia, the United States, and New Zealand.
Bicycle track racing between 1890 and 1910 was as popular as any of today's major sports. He was almost certainly the first black athlete to have a commercial sponsor and the first to establish world records. He was also a representative of Black America abroad.
Taylor left the track in 1910, retiring at the age of 32. He later started several businesses. Each failed depleting his savings.
By 1930, with his wife estranged, his money gone, he became homeless, staying in a Chicago YMCA shelter, he penned his own autobiography titled 'The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World' and spent his remaining years selling copies of his self-published book as a means of income.
In a world without cars, motorcycles or airplanes, racing cyclists were the fastest humans on earth. They were heroic and glamorous figures. Throughout his life, he promoted clean living . He often quoted principles to live by known as the 'Dozen Don'ts'
When Marshall Taylor died penniless June 21, 1932 at age 53 in a Chicago County Hospital charity ward at the height of the Depression, he was buried in an unmarked grave. He was reburied in 1948 and his achievements praised at a Chicago memorial ceremony.
Sixteen years later a group of minority cyclists, funded by the Schwinn Bicycle Co., had his body exhumed and reburied at the Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Illinois.
Today the Major Taylor Association, Inc, a non-profit corporation is looking to honor the life of Major Taylor with the erection of a two-sided statue in Taylor's honor. They have a website where they are still in need of donations.
His name was synonymous with speed. Accounts of his feats stretched the globe. Still, most history books have overlooked Major Taylor.