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Mass. Town Honors World Champion Black Cyclist

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Marshall "Major" Taylor was the first African-American World Champion bicycle track racer, and the second American world champ. Taylor raced in the 1890s. Now, his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., is working to remind the world of his legacy.

ED GORDON, host:

We all know one big name in American cycling: Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for a record-setting seven consecutive years. But how many people remember the name Marshall Major Taylor?

Taylor was the first African-American world champion bicycle track racer, and the second American world champ in history. This was back in the 1890s. And now Taylor's adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts is working hard to remind the world of his legacy.

Sean Cole explains how.

SEAN COLE reporting:

One of the people working the hardest is Lynne Tolman.

Ms. LYNNE TOLMAN (Board Member, Major Taylor Association): So this is Worcester Center Boulevard.

COLE: She's a board member of the Major Taylor Association.

Ms. TOLMAN: And where it stops curving and goes straight, it's just been renamed Major Taylor Boulevard.

COLE: Oh, there it is. Major Taylor Boulevard.

Ms. TOLMAN: Yeah. Nice big signs. Big, bold letters.

COLE: Tolman also took me up a steep, steep hill on George Street where Taylor used to train. Oh, my God.

Ms. TOLMAN: Yeah. I mean, the car engine, you can hear, has trouble.

COLE: She co-organizes a 500-foot bike race straight up that hill every year. Part of the proceeds will help a monument for Taylor at the local library.

Ms. TOLMAN: For now, the Garden Club has planted flowers in the circle where the sculpture wall will go.

COLE: It's a long time coming; Taylor was world champ in 1899. The second Black international sports star behind boxer George Dixon. He retired in 1910 and died two decades later, penniless from bad business deals and all but forgotten.

Ms. TOLMAN: Here's a guy who broke the color barrier in sports half a century before Jackie Robinson. And we think it's a shame that this trailblazer isn't remembered.

COLE: Taylor was born Marshall Taylor in 1878. He got the nickname Major doing bike stunts in a soldier's outfit in Indiana where he grew up. He moved to Worcester with his coach when he was 17 and found it to be a lot friendlier than the Midwest.

Ms. TOLMAN: He was allowed to join the YMCA in Worcester, which he had never been allowed to do in Indiana because of his color. And he wrote in his autobiography that he was pleased beyond expression about that.

COLE: Taylor was already champion of the black circuit by then, but the League of American Wheelmen had barred blacks from racing whites. Still, Taylor drew crowds. He was called the Worcester Whirlwind and the Colored Cyclone. And so the league made an exception, much to the chagrin of many whites.

Ms. TOLMAN: He would be on the road on the racing circuit and couldn't get a hotel room, couldn't get a meal because of the color of his skin. He raced on an empty stomach more than once.

COLE: White riders threatened Taylor and even attacked him, and yet he never complained or called the police. Gloria Hall(ph), who owns the house where Major Taylor once lived, says he stuck to his principles, religious and otherwise.

Ms. GLORIA HALL: He would never race on Sunday, and he held to that for most of his cycling career.

COLE: I talked with Hall outside the house. She says Taylor bought it through a white lawyer and that the others on the block didn't know who their new neighbor was until he moved in.

Ms. HALL: They were in uproar. They came to him and wanted to buy the house back from him. And, of course, he said no.

COLE: Can I see the inside?

Ms. HALL: Sure.

COLE: Hall bought the house more or less because it belonged to Taylor. In fact, she's restoring it to the way it looked back then. She says she wants to put a plaque out front. She also says that when first bought the house, she found what could be Major Taylor's sneaker.

Ms. HALL: And I wonder if this was his sneaker. I was looking at it and trying to figure out the physical size of his foot. You know, I said, well, maybe this was his, maybe not.

COLE: You should just say it's his sneaker.

Ms. HALL: I know. It's his, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COLE: It's quite something in Worcester to be able to say you own the house where Major Taylor lived.

Ms. HALL: My kids think it's kind of cool too. See kids will be talking to other kids about it. I mean, because they are doing some things in the Worcester public schools about Major Taylor.

COLE: Specifically, a whole curriculum on Taylor's life, written by retired third grade teacher Jenny Walsh(ph). She says her black students stood a little taller after learning about Taylor.

Ms. JENNY WALSH: Which was really nice. When you walk into a building in downtown Worcester and all you see is white males up there on the walls because those are the heroes.

If you want to tell black children that they're important, you have to have pictures of important black people up there too.

COLE: That's what the future monument is about and the banner emblazoned with Taylor's photo outside the historical museum, and even a display at the local Applebee's. But one of the most direct links I found to Taylor in Worcester was at Jenny Walsh's house. Her mother-in-law lived down the street from Taylor and said he was always a gentleman.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Cole.

GORDON: One note: there's even a blues song about Major Taylor. He Never Raced on Sunday by Colorado Blues Singer Otis Taylor - no relation - who's also a cyclist. Take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, He Never Raced on Sunday)

Mr. OTIS TAYLOR (Musician): (Singing) He never raced, I'll never race on Sunday. He never raced, he never raced on Sunday. Major Marshall Taylor, Major Marshall Taylor, fastest man alive. World, world, world champion, say world bicycle racing champion. I said world, world champion. World bicycle racing champion. He never raced, never raced on Sunday.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.

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