The First African American Athletic Super Star

Marshall (Major) Taylor was one of eight children. His father was a coachman for the wealthy Southard family. Major and the son of his father’s employer became close, and he began to live with the Southard family. The Southard’s gave Major a bicycle and a future that no one would have expected.

When the Southard’s moved, Major moved back with his biological family and began to realize what African American family life was like.

Major became an expert bicycle trick rider and began to earn money doing stunts in front of a bicycle shop. He moved on to another job, training people how to ride bicycles. The owner of a bicycle manufacturer hired him thinking that Major would become a champion racer and could promote his bicycle line.

As a teenager, Major set a racing record and was jeered by the largely white crowd. He was also threatened by his competitors. But he continued to compete, win races, and set records. In one race his nearest competitor had a knife that he planned to stab Major with if he ever caught up to him.

Major turned professional at the age of 18. Racial prejudice continued, and he was barred from some races. Undaunted, he would race in private events and set world records. Major reluctantly agreed to race in Europe where he beat the champions of a number of countries. His race wasn’t a problem in Europe.

Major quit racing at the age of 32 as his body could no longer withstand the grueling pressures of racing. Although he had become very rich when racing, he lost much of his fortune in a bad investment. He died at the age of 53 living in a charity ward of a hospital. He was buried in an unmarked grave. When Frank Schwinn, of the Schwinn Bicycle Co., learned of Major’s unmarked grave, he saw that Major was buried in a more prominent location.

Major was one of the first African American athletes to confront racial prejudice at the time and became a role model for other athletes of color. He challenged segregation in sports to become the first black celebrity athlete.

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“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.” – Major Taylor’s graveside plaque

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