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South Side murals recall first African American sports superstar, Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor

The first African American to win a cycling world championship, “Major” Taylor has deep ties to Chicago. He’s remembered by local bicycling fanatics, trail keepers and muralist Bernard Williams, who aim to tell his story and keep his legacy alive.

The Major Taylor Trail Mural, a series of paintings stretching 400 feet on a pedestrian bridge over the Little Calumet River, was done by Chicago artist Bernard Williams.
The “Major” Taylor Trail Mural, a series of paintings stretching 400 feet on a pedestrian bridge over the Little Calumet River, was done by Chicago artist Bernard Williams.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

He was the first African American sports hero and the first Black athlete to compete regularly in open, integrated competitions. He was the first and only African American to win a cycling world championship. He was known as the fastest man in the world, nicknamed “Major” in his Indiana youth and later “the Worcester Whirlwind” after his adopted hometown in Massachusetts. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of his biggest fans. He was one of the wealthiest athletes of his time, too, before dying penniless in Chicago.

This is the story of Marshall “Major” Taylor — whose life was marked by struggle, fame, despair and greatness, and ended in Chicago.

The city keeps the memory of Taylor alive in the “Major” Taylor Trail, which stretches 7 1/2 miles, was created in 2007 and includes a 400-foot mural on the bridge over the Little Calumet River that was painted by Chicago artist Bernard Williams in 2017 to honor the legacy of Taylor. Painted with highly durable acrylic paint on curved metal panels, Williams used his artistic skills to chronicle Taylor’s life based on Taylor’s autobiography, “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.”

Marshall “Major” Taylor taken by French sports photographer Jules Beau in the early 1900s.
Marshall “Major” Taylor taken by French sports photographer Jules Beau in the early 1900s.
Wikimedia Commons

“What I designed was a visual response to his autobiography,” Williams said. “The wall is split into something like 40 panels, so that gave me a design structure to think about a sequential arrangement of symbols and images and words that would tell his story. I was excited that it was an international statement. He was an international star all over the globe riding that bike.”

The bridge mural was a refreshing page-turner for the community, as the wall on which the mural was installed was long-vandalized with graffiti. The mural quality holds up four years after its installment, and Williams said it should stay that way for the next 10 to 15 years. Today, it may be the largest mural in the country dedicated to Taylor.

Peter Taylor (left) and Ed Dixon from the Major Taylor Cycling Club ride past a mural of late champion cyclist Major Taylor on the Far South Side.
Peter Taylor (left) and Ed Dixon from the “Major” Taylor Cycling Club ride past a mural of late champion cyclist Major Taylor on the Far South Side.
Keith Hale / Sun-Times file

A lesser-known mural to the public but a classic fan-favorite to die-hard riders of the trail is featured in the Dan Ryan Woods on the north side of 111th Street, installed with the help of Paula Robinson, Morgan Park Civic League managing director, and painted by Carvell Ray in 2013. It reads, “Major Taylor was the first internationally acclaimed African American Sports Superstar. Held seven world records in 1898. Won the world 1-mile bicycling championship, Aug. 10, 1899. American Sprint Champion 1900.”

An event to commemorate that anniversary is being held Aug. 21, with a bike ride and festival.

Marshall “Major” Taylor competes in a 1901 French cycling event, captured by sports photographer Jules Beau.
Marshall “Major” Taylor competes in a 1901 French cycling event, captured by sports photographer Jules Beau.
Wikimedia Commons

Taylor died a pauper at age 53 on June 21, 1932, in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the height of the Depression. In 1948, a group of former pro racers and Schwinn Bicycle Company owner Frank Schwinn had Taylor’s body exhumed and reburied at Mount Glenwood Cemetery.

Today, members of the “Major” Taylor Trail Keepers and Friends of “Major” Taylor want the community to remember Taylor for his tenacity and his ability to surprise the masses, overcome preconceived notions and stun crowds with spectacular demonstrations of endurance, grit, passion and determination.

“I was born and raised five blocks west of the trail,” “Major” Taylor Trail Keepers board president Brenda Dixon said. “There is a sense of pride that fills me because this is someone who was a person of color in a white sport. The trail is in a predominantly minority community — it’s named after someone that looks like us, and I’m honored that he’s visible in the community that I live in.”

Taylor competed against intense racism at home. Cyclists intentionally crashed him. Death threats were sent to him frequently. And in one instance, Taylor said in his autobiography that he was pushed off his bike in Boston and choked by a white cyclist until he was unconscious.

In spite of the severe prejudice toward his participation in a major sport — cycling was one of the most popular sports in the 19th century — Taylor won world championships abroad at lightning speed, amassing seven world titles by the age of 20.

“Initially, the [2013] mural was there to make people in the community gain more information on who ‘Major’ Taylor was,” Robinson said. “This mural and trail weaves through so many different communities and organizations. It was a project that connected people from all over in the city — and the world. It was a placeholder and a starting point; it was the lightning rod for other projects we’ve worked on like the bridge and now a statue.”

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals