As a young boy in the late 1880s, Marshall didn’t see himself becoming a world champion at anything. Growing up one of eight children to parents whose own parents had been enslaved in Kentucky before the Civil War, he didn’t have much chance for opportunity, even living just outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. That all changed when his father took a job with a white family as their coachman. Marshall came along to help exercise the horses and met the family’s only child, a boy named Daniel. The boys were both eight, and Daniel’s parents encouraged a friendship between the boys. So much so, that they even invited Marshall to live with them for a time. Marshall got a taste of life that not many poor blacks got – good food, nice clothes and Marshall also played with Daniel’s white friends as well. Because the white family was very well off, they bought both boys bicycles – the new rage that was sweeping all of America.
Marshall took to riding a bicycle right away. Soon, he was coming up with tricks to perform as well as riding it all over. When the Southards left Indianapolis and moved to Chicago four years later, Marshall’s mother wouldn’t let him move with them. The Southards gifted Marshall with the bike they had purchased for him. Because of that bike, he was able to get a job as a paper delivery boy and it was during one of his rides his life changed again. He needed a repair on his bike and so took it to a shop where he then showed some of his tricks. The owner was so impressed, he told Marshall he would pay him to do tricks outside his store to bring in customers. It worked! It was that store owner who started him on the road to success as a bicycle racer and world fame at a time when it was difficult for many African Americans to even find decent paying jobs.
Marshall “Major” Taylor: World Champion Bicyclist, 1899-1901 by Marlene Targ Brill shines a light on a little known story in American history. Taylor rose to the height of his sport, even though many in America didn’t want him to succeed and worked hard to keep him from winning races, sometimes through politics and other times through actual physical violence. All because of the color of his skin.
Recommended for 6th grade and up. A really fascinating and fast read.