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Who Was the First African-American Athlete to Become a World Champion?

As a young teenager in 1892, Marshall Taylor began working at an Indianapolis bicycle shop to help support his family. Taylor would attract customers by performing stunts on a bike, dressed in a military uniform. That’s when everyone started calling him "Major." Taylor began entering (and winning) amateur races in 1892, and turned professional in 1896. By 1898, Marshall "Major" Taylor held seven world cycling records, and a year later he took part in the 1899 ICA Track Cycling World Championships in Montreal, finishing first in the one-mile sprint and becoming the first African-American world champion in any sport. Despite his successes, Taylor faced significant racial prejudice throughout his career, but he always remained committed to demonstrating that black athletes could succeed in the white-dominated sport of track cycling.

Pedals to the medals:

  • Major Taylor was the second black athlete to win a world title. The first was Canadian boxer George Dixon, who outlasted Cal McCarthy in 1891 to win the world featherweight title in 22 rounds.

  • Taylor was the American sprint champion in 1899 and 1900. He retired in 1910 at age 32 -- but after a series of bad investments, and without endorsements to live off of, he died penniless, and largely forgotten, in 1932.

  • In more recent years, Taylor’s accomplishments have finally been recognized. In the 1980s, for example, Taylor was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, and the Major Taylor Velodrome was built in Indianapolis.

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More Info: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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