“I want to go home…” I groaned, and my mom already knew what that meant: Jackson’s tired of running around for errands that he perceives as insignificant.
We were visiting our house on Hobson Avenue to check for refurbishment updates. The house was the last thing on my mind as I was not yet aware of the significance of the ground I stood upon. My mom had to decide at that moment: to stay or to go? On the one hand, it meant quieting my whining, dropping me off at home to get on with her day. Instead my mom began explaining the history of the house and its former owner, Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor.
Though I knew that Major Taylor was someone important in the history of my town, I didn’t think much about the house or its story. But while watching a Hennessy commercial about a man who, in “1901, was considered the greatest athlete in the world,” according to the narrator, I came to understand Taylor’s significance. As the commercial faded out, an image of a bottle of Hennessy filling the screen, I shot up thinking that I recognized Major Taylor’s name.
I was excited and proud that my family was caring for Taylor’s home in Worcester but also puzzled that the commercial largely glossed over this cyclist’s history. I felt disrespected. Hennessy used this historical figure to promote their liquor, one that has historically resonated within the Black community, without doing justice to Taylor’s journey.
In fact, Marshall “Major” Taylor was the second African American Olympic gold medalist from the United States and the American sprint champion in 1900. Pre-Civil War Taylor grew up during, arguably, America’s most segregated time period, when African-Americans were less than 50 years away from their enslaved pasts.
Taylor’s life story has been documented in several biographies as well as in short documentaries by outlets like ESPN. Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana where he spent the first twelve years of his life with his family. Once the family moved out at the age of 12, they gave him a parting gift of a bicycle, which he used relentlessly. After receiving recognition for his cycling tricks and abilities, he began performing at a local bike shop, earning $6 per week and, eventually, a new bike.
Hungry for more cycling changes, he began competing at a velodrome where he continually won races in his age bracket. Since the stadiums banned him because of his skin color, he pivoted his focus to road races. Throughout his career he would constantly receive taunts and threats regarding his race, in part because there were few whites who dominated the sport at his level.
Again, his successes led to him being banned from biking in the state of Indiana. Looking for a place where he could find acceptance, Taylor then ran into a friend who moved him to Worcester. With Worcester, Massachusetts being the center of the cycling universe and a more accepting place of African-Americans at the time, Taylor packed up his belongings to pursue his dreams.
Winning the majority of his cycling races, he quickly became a pro within two years and also began competing in sprinting. In his very first year as a pro cyclist, he won 59% of his races which ordinarily would grant him the title of national champion. Predictably, his skin color kept him from receiving this accolade. But in true Taylor fashion, he refused to let the setback deter him.
Hotels turned him away, companies attempted to shut him down, people attempted to run him out of cities, and he was constantly sabotaged by competitors during races.
His third year led him to become a world champion as he broke seven records, one of which had stood for 28 years. Still, as more criticism arose and more people tried to strip his accolades, Taylor kept his head down and continued to break records.
Hotels turned him away, companies attempted to shut him down, people attempted to run him out of cities, and he was constantly sabotaged by competitors during races. Competitors knocked him down and choked him, prompting him to look overseas. International circuits provided a space for Taylor to compete without the burden of American prejudice and blatant racism.
After continual dominance in the international circuits for a couple more years, he decided to retire in 1910 at the age of 32 and would later move out of Worcester altogether.
My family’s interaction with Taylor’s legacy began decades later: we were lucky enough to reclaim the house on Hobson Avenue and are currently attempting to place it on the historical preservation list.
Elsewhere in the city, I am starting to see more references to Taylor. In July 24, 2006 the City of Worcester re-named a major street downtown as Major Taylor Boulevard, which eighteen local Black and Brown artists painted with a Black Lives Matter mural in July 2020. Local stores like Worcester Wares sell gear with Major Taylor’s name and likeness, too.
His legacy also lives on in the many cycling clubs that are named after him across the country, in places like Memphis and Minneapolis. These organizations carry on his legacy by educating members about their local Black history and both encouraging and equipping Black cyclists in a sport where many barriers still exist for people of color.
I moved out to Seattle in 2017, and was excited to find the reach of Taylor’s legacy here as well — the Cascade’s Bicycle Club created the Major Taylor Project, which “empowers youth through bicycling … to explore their communities, build confidence and leadership skills, and discover their power to effect change,” according to their website.
Taylor rose above adversity and did not allow fear to dictate his life or his future. Visiting Taylor’s house now, equipped with this new knowledge, I recognize the importance of carrying on his legacy through the preservation of his home.
I am proud of my family’s contribution to Major Taylor’s story, and I hope this article encourages readers to look deeper into rich histories often taken for granted.