Major Taylor Velodrome Celebrates World-Class African American Cyclist

by Katie Bradley | Feb 20, 2014

In celebration of Black History Month, we are highlighting Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, namesake of the Major Taylor Velodrome, a part of the Lake Sullivan Sports Complex of which Marian University became manager in 2011.

“To call the Major Taylor Velodrome our home track is such an honor and a reminder to always strive to be the best. His name gives us greater significance,” said Dean Peterson, head coach of Marian University’s 24-time national championship cycling team and executive director at the Indy Cycloplex.

Taylor was an American cyclist who won the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899 after setting numerous world records and overcoming racial discrimination. He was the second African American man to win a world championship.

One of eight children, Major Taylor was born to Gilbert and Sophronia Taylor, on November 26, 1878, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gilbert Taylor, a Civil War veteran, worked as a coachman in the home of a wealthy Indiana family, the Southards. Because Taylor’s father often brought his son to work with him, Taylor became close friends with the Southard’s son who was the same age. From the age of eight to twelve, Taylor lived with the Southards. During this time, he received a bike from the family and quickly became an expert trick rider.

When the Southards moved to Chicago, Illinois, Taylor had to fend for himself and earned money staging exhibitions and performing cycling stunts outside a bicycle shop. It is believed that Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform, hence the nickname, “Major.”  

By the age of 13, Taylor won his first bike race. By 15, he beat the track record for a one-mile race. In 1895, he won a 75-mile road race outside Indianapolis, after which he was banned from the Indianapolis track for racial reasons. The same year, Taylor moved to Worchester, Massachusetts with his employer and racing manager Louis “Birdie” Munger.  

Taylor quickly became a professional cyclist, at one time holding seven world records. He traveled the world competing and winning despite frequent encounters of racism and attempts to ban him from or sabotage him during, races. He prevailed, setting world records in all races distances on the track and road.

 “He was a pioneer. The significance of what he did when you consider the true prejudice and plots to take him out of competition that he encountered, is nothing short of incredible. He worked against all odds and continued to win. He was committed to excellence, strength, and perseverance,” said Peterson.  

The velodrome opened in 1982 and was a facility required to host that year’s National Sports Festival. It was the first building built with public money in Indianapolis to be named for a black person and has played host to many national and international competitions, including the 1987 Pan Am Games. 

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