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Book Excerpt

Cycling helped Major Taylor triumph over racism

Major Taylor (left), pictured in 1903, competed for two seasons in Australia, including against champion Don Walker. pictured here in 1903Major Taylor Collection, Indiana State Museum

(Michael Kranish, a former reporter for the Globe who now is an investigative political reporter for The Washington Post, first wrote about Major Taylor for the Globe in a magazine cover story in 2001. Since then, he collected material for his just-published book: “The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero.” This excerpt is reprinted by permission.)

It was 1897, the height of the Jim Crow era, when African Americans faced new roadblocks in their fight for the equality they had been promised at the end of the Civil War. Marshall “Major” Taylor, an 18-year-old black man who lived in Massachusetts, prepared to compete in a race that would become a key moment in his quest to become not just the world’s fastest man, but the first American-born black to win a world sports championship.

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Taylor had moved in his teens to Worcester, where he believed he would be treated more fairly than in his native Indiana. At the time, bicycling was the nation’s most popular sport, with velodromes regularly packed with more than thousands of spectators. Most racers were white, and a cycling federation had banned black members. But Taylor had obtained a racing license and stunned the sport in December 1896 by winning a sprint in his first professional contest at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He then competed in one of the world’s most brutal athletic contests, a six-day race. By the time he prepared to compete in a Massachusetts contest nine months later, he was widely acclaimed. He was not just another competitor at the starting line. He was the star in races that were marketed to the masses as “white versus black” or the “white Adonis” versus the “great Negro.” With every victory, Taylor aimed to disprove racist theories of inferiority.

No other black athlete in America held such a prominent position. White racers repeatedly tried to ban him, citing Jim Crow restrictions. What they really feared was that he would beat them and expose the false rationale for their prejudices.

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Taylor’s cause was helped by Robert Teamoh, an African-American who was simultaneously a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and a reporter for the Boston Globe. In his legislative role, Teamoh had won passage of one of the nation’s strongest anti-discrimination laws. The bill included a provision that said discrimination was prohibited in places such as skating rinks “or other public amusement,” which benefitted Taylor because it covered the velodromes used for cycling competitions. Anyone who discriminated in such places based on race was subject to a fine of up to $300. Still, some of his competitors repeatedly threatened his life if he showed up at the track. He said he had “a dread of injury every time I start in a race.”

Taylor’s manager became so concerned that his protege would be banned from races that a radical plan was devised. The manager was a white man named Louis de Franklin “Birdie” Munger who had previously won many national cycling championships. He obtained a bottle of ointment that was supposed to transform a black person into one who looked white. The lotion would be rubbed everywhere on Taylor’s skin. Advertisements in African American newspapers showed before and after pictures of how a black person looked white after the treatment, which was claimed to be “harmless.” A black would look “four or five shades whiter” over the entire body.

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Michael Kranish will make appearances to discuss his book on May 7 at the Worcester Jewish Community Center; May 8 at Porter Square Books; and May 9 at Boston Public Library.Simon and Schuster

Promoters of color-changing products promised to discreetly deliver the lotions. “Black Skin Remover: A Wonderful Bleach Face,” said a typical ad in the Colored American magazine. Other ads suggested that combining the lotion with hair straightener would make blacks more likely to gain employment and acceptance by whites. “White People spend millions to beautify themselves,” said an ad by the Chemical Wonders Company. “Colored people should make themselves as attractive as possible.” The products were marketed as if they were for beauty, but the underlying message revealed much about society and prejudice at the time. The ads proved nothing about the products’ effectiveness, but rather perpetuated a pernicious marketing of racism, playing on the fears of those blacks who felt pressured to take desperate measures they believed were needed in order to survive a Jim Crow society.

Taylor, fearing he would be unable to enter races, was not immune to these pressures. He agreed to let Munger make an experiment of him. Munger and an associate, Fred Dickson, poured the skin-changing lotion over Taylor. Day after day, the chemical experiment continued, and Taylor’s skin seared in pain. As he later recalled it, “Birdie Munger . . . tried in various ways to make me white, innumerable times by scaring me nearly to death, and on one occasion by the bleaching process. On that occasion, my hair turned red almost by the action of the cream and the skin was nearly burned off me. Then I thought I was going to die.” Munger and Dickson were so horrified by the result that they “looked like ghosts before they got through with me.”

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Munger recalled it similarly, saying Taylor “was one day refused entry to a race owing to his color. We told him that we would bleach him and make him white. He took us at our word and submitted to an operation. The mixture was poisonous in the extreme. It was a sort of cream, and for days and days we poured it on the lad. His hair turned a sort of red, and his skin did seem to be turning whiter and whiter. But the solution was working to the detriment to the lad’s health, and we had to stop it.”

Three days after Munger’s chilling account of bleaching Taylor was published in the Detroit Free Press, Taylor entered a race at what seemed to be a safe venue, a county fair in Taunton, Massachusetts. An extraordinary crowd of twenty-five thousand people gathered to watch the one-mile contest on September 23, 1897. Taylor raced hard but ended in second place. It seemed uneventful, but as Taylor prepared to dismount, the third-place finisher, William E. Becker, thrust his hands around Taylor’s throat and choked him “into a state of insensibility,” as Taylor recalled it. Police pulled Becker away. The stunned crowd watched as Taylor lay motionless on the track. Munger rushed forward, trying to revive his friend, but for fifteen minutes Taylor was unconscious. Word spread that Taylor had died. Finally, Munger revived him, and the pair walked off the track. The attack made headlines across the country. “Choked Taylor,” said the Boston Globe.

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Becker later claimed that Taylor cut him off. His excuse was accepted by the League of American Wheelmen, which then fined him $50 for his physical attack of Taylor. Becker, with contributions from some fellow white racers, paid his fine and quickly rejoined the racing circuit. It was a small price to pay, a journalist wrote at the time, noting that Taylor’s competitors “would gladly sacrifice $50” to get Taylor off the course.

As the racing season moved south and west, the top riders took a train from city to city, and Taylor boldly joined them. But Taylor was barred from entering most of the races. In New Albany, Indiana, across the river from Kentucky, “the white southern riders refused to get up against him and openly threatened him with violence,” prompting the referee to cancel the contest, which Taylor was “a moral certainty” to win, the Boston Globe reported. Seeking to practice on a Louisville track, Taylor was told that blacks were barred under a Jim Crow law. Taylor entered contests in more hospitable cities such as Detroit, but his season was over. As he returned to Worcester, he lamented that despite being “at the top of my form,” he was not able to fight for the championship. The title of national champion—hollow as it was—went to a white competitor.

Taylor had an epiphany. Never again would he consider that he would be better off if Munger could bleach his skin white. Prejudice against him turned into motivation. “My color is my fortune,” Taylor said. “Were I white I might not amount to a row of shucks in this business.”

Taylor vowed revenge. In the coming years, he would compete for a world championship in Canada, duel the champion of France at a Paris course, criss-cross Europe to appear before thousands at each racetrack, and make his way twice to Australia. He would become one of the most chronicled black people of his era, written about in thousands of articles around the world, and captured on camera by the greatest practitioners of the emerging field of sports photography. Time and again, facing unconscionable acts of racism, he emerged triumphant. His victories came fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.

He overcame oppression to become a much-needed symbol of hope and triumph at one of the nation’s darkest moments. His story must be remembered.


Michael Kranish will make appearances to discuss his book on May 7 at the Worcester Jewish Community Center; May 8 at Porter Square Books; and May 9 at Boston Public Library.