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Major Taylor: The world’s first black sports superstar
By Tom Adkinson
April 8, 2022

major taylor museum
Youngsters can pedal tricycles and bicycles in a substantial portion of the museum’s exhibition space.Image by Tom Adkinson

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Marshall “Major” Taylor generated excitement and controversy as a Black athlete long before Jesse Owens excelled in front of Adolph Hitler, Jackie Robinson got his first hit as a Brooklyn Dodger or Charlie Sifford teed off as the first Black golfer in the PGA.

Taylor was an international superstar in cycling, a sport that doesn’t have the cache that track, baseball or golf have today, but it was hugely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s with sprint races, intercity races and endurance races.

major taylor competition bike
This competition bike from the early 1900s was one Major Taylor rode. It is on loan from the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame. Image by Tom Adkinson

Indeed, Taylor has been called the world’s first Black sports superstar, holding seven world records in 1898, winning the 1-mile world championship in Montreal in 1899 and, in a triumph over racism in America, became the U.S. sprint champion in 1900.

major taylor museum curator kisha tandy
Kisha Tandy, the museum’s curator of social history, was instrumental in the Major Taylor exhibit. Image by Tom Adkinson

“Yes, Major Taylor was a major deal,” said Kisha Tandy, curator of social history at the Indiana State Museum, and the person behind “Major Taylor: The Fastest Cyclist in the World,” an expansive exhibit that runs through Oct. 23.

Much of the exhibit, of course, focuses on Taylor’s life. He was born in rural Indiana in 1878, acquired the lasting nickname of Major as a youthful stunt bicycle performer dressed in a military uniform and won his first race as a teen. He became part of the See-Saw Cycling Club, a Black team, formed in response to the exclusively white Zig-Zag Cycling Club, in Indianapolis. He competed against Jim Crow from the start.

He moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, at the behest of Louis Munger, a former racing star himself and bicycle manufacturer. Munger became Taylor’s employer, father figure and racing manager, and he stood with Taylor against racism, according to an article on the Major Taylor Association website.

major taylor museum speed challenge
Museum visitors get to challenge Major Taylor’s speed in the quarter-mile sprint in the Time Trial attraction. Image by Tom Adkinson

Taylor became the “Worcester Whirlwind” while combatting prejudice on many levels. He bought a house, and the neighbors tried to pay him to leave. Southern race promoters refused to let him compete. A fellow racer assaulted him.

Looking elsewhere, he signed a European contract in 1901, was well received in France, and as one article says, “beat every European champion.” He raced throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States before retiring in 1910 at age 32. His correspondence to his wife and daughter from around the world is prominent in the museum exhibit.

“We ask no special favor or advantage over other groups in the great game of life; we only ask for an even break” is a Taylor comment transformed into a major art piece of the exhibition.

major taylor exhibit
Part of the Major Taylor exhibit explains how bicycles work; another lets young visitors assemble a bicycle or tricycle. Image by Tom Adkinson

Beyond the biographical, the Taylor exhibit provides an in-depth look at bicycle mechanics. There’s even a section where young visitors can assemble a two-wheeler or a three-wheeler and pedal around a marked-off track under the gaze of a portrait of Taylor.

One of the important items on display is a bicycle that Taylor actually rode in competition. It is on loan from the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame in Davis, California.

If you want to get a true sense of how fast Taylor was, either watch or participate in an exhibit component called Time Trial. Bicycles are set on roller platforms to see how well challengers can do against Taylor’s quarter-mile world record of 25.4 seconds. Nobody comes close.

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(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on

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