Years before Jack Johnson became the first Black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, and decades before Jackie Robinson would break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Major Taylor became the first Black cyclist to become world cycling champ.
In 1899, Taylor won the one-mile sprint event at the world track championships. He was also the national sprint champ in 1899 and 1900. He would go on to beat many of the world’s top riders in races in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Throughout his career, he faced racial prejudice and threats of violence. Following one race in Massachusetts, he was nearly choked to death by a competitor he’d beaten.
Now his story of triumph over adversity is being used to inspire and teach Wilmington kids about perseverance.
Taylor kept going “no matter how many times he was knocked off of his bike, assaulted intentionally, or pushed out of a race, or tactically disadvantaged within a race to try and keep him from winning,” said Artis Hall, a member of the Philadelphia Major Taylor Cycling Club.
In the weeks leading up to this weekend’s Wilmington Grand Prix, a group of about 30 kids in middle and high school have been reading up on Taylor’s life and taking part in virtual discussions as part of an UrbanPromise Wilmington program.
The kids in the group are reading different biographies of Taylor depending on their ability, but they’re also participating in virtual discussions with avid cyclists from around the region about Taylor’s life and how his accomplishments can be applied to their lives today. One of the books is “The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero,” by Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter at the Washington Post.
The program is led by Lawrence Manley of UrbanPromise Wilmington, a nonprofit Christian youth organization. Manley said the cycling mentors play a big role in driving home the lessons the kids can learn from Taylor’s story.
“To have different people from the community come in and reinforce these messages and also be examples, I think is a really big thing,” Manley said. “It sends a powerful message, even more powerful than if we were just reading a book in class.”
Taylor’s triumph has been largely overlooked. Perhaps that’s because of the lesser interest in pro cycling compared to other sports, especially for a Black athlete competing in the Jim Crow era. His story has even come as a surprise to fans of the sport like Hall.
“Major Taylor wasn’t one of those people that I was taught or that I was connected to as a young person, and I didn’t find them probably until about 10 or 11 years ago,” Hall said.
The lack of recognition for Taylor is also one of the topics the groups discussed at their online meeting on Monday.
“We talked in our room about how come I never heard of this guy? Why is that? What doors did he open? Who followed him or why didn’t more people follow him?” said Lynne Tolman, who directs the nonprofit Major Taylor Association in Worcester, Mass. “The kids themselves brought up a lot really, you know, they really cut to the chase. So, I enjoy that.”
“He worked so hard to get where he wanted to be,” said Ethan Raines, an 11th grader from Wilmington. “Having everything thrown at him because of the time period he was in and all the things he would have struggled with because of his race, and he still decided to be the best anyway.”
While Taylor’s life is the focus, the group also talks about their enjoyment of cycling, in an effort to develop a love for cycling as a legitimate sport among the young people.
“Some of the kids I talked to during these discussions talked about how they never really thought about cycling as a competitive sport, as athletics,” Tolman said. “They thought of bikes as like a Christmas present, a toy for children, as a plaything.”
Bess Scott, with the Capital City Cyclists in Dover, said she hopes the program encourages more Black young people to join the cycling ranks.
“For me personally, it’s exposing our group to people who may not know that there’s a whole community of Black cyclists across the United States and across the globe. Maybe they don’t think it’s a thing,” Scott said. “Maybe that’ll help some of the kids to start that activity as just a regular part of their life like we did. It was a normal thing for us to ride around.”
As part of this weekend’s Wilmington Grand Prix cycling races, some of these kids will take their bikes for a few laps on the downtown racecourse. The Major Taylor Ride event will offer community members a chance to tackle the USA Cycling sanctioned course for free starting at 11:15 Saturday morning. Later in the afternoon, some of the top cycling pros in the nation will race along the same course.
The community ride is also part of an effort to spread the word about Taylor’s life and accomplishments to the broader community.
“It’s not a surprise to me when my family or a friend or somebody doesn’t know anything about it,” Hall said. “What should be surprising, what we should be working to change is why all of our friends who cycle may not know. I don’t mean just our Black friends who cycle – I mean our white friends who cycle or our Asian friends who cycle. Anybody who’s on a bike should have some sense or some understanding of connection to who he is.”
The Wilmington Grand Prix returns for its 14th year of races and community rides through and around the city of Wilmington this weekend.
After two years of race cancellations, top cyclists competing in USA Cycling National Racing Calendar will be back to tackle the course through downtown Wilmington and up Brandywine Park’s challenging Monkey Hill. In 2019, the race drew participants from 19 states and six countries.
The weekend will kick off Friday with the 3.2-mile Monkey Hill time trial race through Brandywine Park from 5 to 8 p.m.
Saturday events include the Major Taylor ride in the morning, with the women’s and men’s pro races in the afternoon.
The annual 15-mile governor’s ride and the 64-mile Delaware Gran Fondo cap off the weekend on Sunday.