Nine years before Jack Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion and 48 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, there was Marshall “Major” Taylor.
In 1899, the Indianapolis native became the first Black cycling world champion. Throughout his career, which ended in 1910, Taylor established seven world records, defeating opponents from around the globe and persevering through racist attacks, verbal and physical. Despite his successes, Taylor died penniless in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital outside of Chicago and was buried in a pauper’s grave in 1932 at the age of 53.
Now, thanks to a friendship between avid cyclists Dan Lee and Anthony Bridgeman and a partnership with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Major Taylor’s legacy in Indianapolis will be memorialized in a mural. Chicago-based artist Shawn Michael Warren is currently adding Taylor’s likeness to the Barnes & Thornburg building at the southeast corner of East Washington and South Meridian streets, about 60 feet off the ground. The mural, adorned with Taylor’s quote, “I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail,” depicts the cyclist in various stages of his racing career.
Lee first learned of Taylor as a sophomore at Ball State University. Andrew Richie’s 1988 biography, “Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer” had just been published, and Lee was constantly looking for ways to learn more about the Hoosier legend. Lee, who works for the bicycle company SRAM, went so far as to recreate a 75-mile race Taylor participated in, spanning from Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis to Grant County, near Marion. He said the mural will remember Taylor not just for his racing abilities, but for the values: namely determination and perseverance that Taylor embraced throughout his life.
“This is such a great moment for Major Taylor,” Lee said. “I think he can say something to everyone in our country. … He overcame a tremendous amount of hardship and discrimination and racism, and he still managed to show everyone around him grace, and he had a strong Christian faith. His is just a very compelling story. We’ve gone through a tough stretch in our country as far as division, and I feel like he can speak to a true kind of justice and unity.”
Born in Indianapolis in 1878, Taylor worked in various bicycle shops and began his racing career in the Circle City. Despite his early successes on the track, Taylor faced frequent harassment and discrimination in Indianapolis. He ended up moving to Massachusetts as a teenager, where he began to break records.
Bridgeman said the mural, along with a historical marker dedication on the Monon Trail in 2009, are signs the city is moving in the right direction.
“I think it does represent a change to some degree,” Bridgeman said. “I’m glad that individuals and institutions are recognizing the raw deal that Taylor received when he was a resident here in Indianapolis, and I think it’s great that he’s finally getting his due.”
Of course, Taylor’s experiences with racism weren’t limited to Indianapolis. Bridgeman recounts an incident in 1897 when Taylor beat cyclist William Becker in a race, which resulted in Becker throwing Taylor to the ground and choking him until he lost consciousness. Along with a brief suspension, Becker was only charged with a $50 fine before he was reinstated.
“Despite all of those things, he still persevered and continued to dominate his rivals,” Bridgeman said. “It’s great now that Indianapolis is embracing who was once its prodigal son.”
While the mural and the informative plaque accompanying it are not complete, both men hope passersby will be inspired by Taylor’s tenacity.
“I hope that more people, especially young people, get to know who Major Taylor was and learn about his story,” Bridgeman said. “Even though there are challenges around you, I’d like young people to not despair but to see that if they stay dedicated to their craft, whatever that is, if they stay dedicated to being good people and disciplined about the way they live their lives … there’s opportunities for them to succeed beyond the people that may want to pull them down. They can persevere.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.