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Life Of Black Cyclist Major Taylor Chronicled In New Book 'The World's Fastest Man'


We've got a story now from the intersection of sports and civil rights. The world's best cyclists head toward the finish line at the Tour de France this weekend. Generations ago, before there was a Tour de France, an American cyclist shot to fame. He raced from the American Midwest to Paris. His name was Major Taylor, and he was born in 1878, a black athlete in the days of segregation.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, really, Major Taylor belongs in the pantheon of athletes who were civil rights leaders. He was before Jack Johnson or Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson.

MARTIN: Michael Kranish wrote a book about Major Taylor called "The World's Fastest Man." Steve Inskeep spoke with Kranish recently about Taylor, including how the cyclist grew up in Indianapolis and caught the attention of a cycling company owner named Birdie Munger.

KRANISH: He saw Major Taylor race and was astonished, eventually, to see that he was almost setting world records - unofficially. He couldn't believe how fast this young man was. So he basically said, I want to start training you. I want to give you the state-of-the-art bicycle that I'm building at my company in Indianapolis. And that's what he did.


What happened in the 1890s when a young black man showed up at a race that I presume most of the competitors were white, and he wanted to race right alongside them as an equal?

KRANISH: Well, he was often restricted under Jim Crow restrictions. He was often told, you can't race here. So it was very difficult.

Eventually, Birdie Munger took Major Taylor to Worcester, Mass., to start a new company and to help him basically avoid some of the racism that he did face in Indianapolis. Major Taylor had gone to the local YMCA in Indianapolis, and he was told, you can't enter because of your skin color. And it was the first time Major Taylor said he encountered what he called "the monster prejudice," quote, unquote.

So in Worcester, Mass., he was able to go to the YMCA, train there. And he developed into this extraordinary athlete. Eventually, Birdie Munger did take Major Taylor in 1896 to New York City, which was the center of the nation's bicycling craze. This was seven months after the infamous Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which said separate but equal accommodations for blacks were OK.

INSKEEP: Codifying legal racism across the United States.

KRANISH: Right, institutionalizing the Jim Crow laws. So if you get the context here, bicycling is the craze of the country. Plessy has basically institutionalized the racism. And here he is, in the summer of 1896, at Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena in the country. And he is competing in a race that's called the Six Day Race - because you would race for six days straight with an hour or two of rest here or there.

It was extraordinary that this one 18-year-old black man was able to compete against the best white racers in the country and the world. To get into this race, he'd gone to the promoters - and initially said, no, if a black man goes into this race, there'll be a riot in New York City. You can't compete. And Major Taylor said, no, I should be able to compete in this race. And eventually, the promoters realized that having a black man compete against all these whites could be a marketing tool in a race that was portrayed as black versus white.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking that we're getting into the era when Jack Johnson became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, right? And there were white contenders who went against him and were considered the great white hope - that's where that phrase came from. So is this the same thing?

KRANISH: Well, this was actually before Jack Johnson. So Jack Johnson actually became the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. So this is 1896. Major Taylor paved the way.

Not only that, Jack Johnson - most people don't realize - he actually started his career as a cyclist. He wanted to emulate Major Taylor. So Jack Johnson was in a race in Texas. And he went around the track, and he was seriously injured. He was in the hospital. And he then said, I want to participate in a safer sport - boxing.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KRANISH: If you can imagine how dangerous cycling was - this was a sport in which you are packed around the track. If you were going behind a pacing vehicle, you could reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. It was an extraordinarily exciting race, a very dangerous race. Major Taylor said that he saw at least 11 of his colleagues were killed because you would crash. You didn't wear helmets. You'd have concussions.

There were these cathedrals of cycling all over the country called velodromes, and this is where Major Taylor often raced. He raced in this country and all over the world. And he became one of the most famous athletes of his time.

INSKEEP: Famous among black as well as white sports fans.

KRANISH: There really was no one else in our history at this time like Major Taylor. And the racism that he faced was extraordinary. He had to face not just being banned, but there were people who had tried to beat him up. He feared for his life.

He had these scrapbooks that I used for the research in the book. And oftentimes, there were stories about death threats against him. At one point, one of his competitors choked him on the track. He lay senseless for five minutes on the track until, finally, his manager came out and was able to revive him.

And there was such concern by Major Taylor and his trainers that he would be banned from these races by whites that they tried an audacious plan of using a lotion - that was marketed at the time for sort of racist reasons - that would lighten your skin. All the lotion did was just incredibly injure Major Taylor. It was incredibly painful, acidic, hurtful.

And so at that point - basically was a turning point for Major Taylor. He said, never again will I let someone try to treat me for something other than what I am. I will use the racism against me as my motivation.

INSKEEP: Mr. Kranish, thanks very much.

KRANISH: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: That was Steve - talked with Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post and author of "The World's Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Major Taylor, America's First Black Sports Hero." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.