Local shares story of overlooked athlete

She can’t wait to tell. ... All you’ve got to do is ask the question.

And to help you along, she’s got it boldly printed across the back of her special yellow T-shirt.

“No matter where I go, people always ask,” Frankie Brown said. “I can be in the grocery store or in my neighborhood or down at RiverScape. Even when I’m out mowing my grass, if I have the shirt on somebody will read the back and ask.”

On this day she had stopped at Panera Bread on Brown Street and it wasn’t long before someone zeroed in on the back of that shirt and repeated the question there:

“Who is Major Taylor?”

Brown flashed a glad-you-asked grin, then followed with a listen-to-this! answer.

“He was one of the most awesome athletes ever, but a lot of people still know nothing about him,” she said. “He was the first African-American ever to become a world champion — in any sport — and he’s just the second black man anywhere to hold a world title. The first one was a boxer from Canada (world bantamweight champ George “Little Chocolate” Dixon.)”

In 1897 — 50 years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball — Taylor held seven world cycling records. Two years later he won the 1-mile sprint world championship in Montreal. Soon he was one of the most famous — and best paid — athletes in the world.

Taylor did so by overcoming overwhelming racial discrimination with wondrous athletic achievement and tremendous personal honor and comportment.

It makes for a colorful, almost inconceivable story and what brings it home here even more is that well-known Dayton athletic figures — both over 100 years ago and today — figure into it quite prominently.

So, too, does Frankie Brown and the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Dayton. Brown, a longtime educator with Dayton Public Schools, is the president of the club, which is holding its fifth annual signature ride of the year on Saturday.

Proceeds from the race benefit the Westmont Optimist Club.

Brown said while the club — one of about 20 in the nation bearing Major Taylor’s name — hopes to promote everything from the development of cycling skill and safety to camaraderie and healthy living, there is also a concerted effort to educate people about Major Taylor.

And that’s one of the reasons Edwin C. Moses, the fabled Olympic hurdling champion from Dayton, serves as the national chairman of the Major Taylor Association.

“We want people to know who Major Taylor was,” Brown said, “but we also want them to know what he stood for. His lessons from over 100 years ago still work today.”

 From rural Indiana to world’s stage

Taylor was born in rural Indiana in 1878. His father, a Civil War veteran, served as a coachman to a wealthy white family, the Southards, and Major — whose real name was Marshall — became pals with the family’s son, Dan, and ended up living with them. They gave him a bicycle and he soon became a talented trick rider.

When he was 12, he was hired to do stunts outside a local bicycle shop. It was then — because he performed wearing an Army uniform — that people started calling him Major.

A year later he won his first amateur race in Indianapolis, but soon after was barred from the track because of his skin color. Over the next couple of years, as he began to win more prestigious races, he experienced the wrath of certain white competitors and finally the state barred him from all races.

Taylor moved to Worcester, Mass., then the cycling capital of America. Although he owned several world records by the time he was 19, the League of American Wheelmen denied blacks membership and many races, especially in the South, refused to let him compete.

In interviews over the years — and in his self-published autobiography — Taylor told how he endured everything from nails being scattered in front of his tires during races to one competitor tackling and choking him until he was unconscious.

Through it all Taylor — a very religious man who would not race on the Sabbath — tried to refrain from bitterness and retaliation.

It was during this time that he found unwavering support from Dayton’s Earl Kiser, a two-time world cycling champion himself.

Although just 5-foot-6, the well-muscled Kiser — known as “The Little Dayton Demon” — stood taller than most men back then. Racing for the Dayton Bicycle Club and then Stearns Yellow Fellow team, he competed all over Europe in the 1890s.

When he helped form the American Racing Cyclist Union, one of the first issues he pushed for was the inclusion of Major Taylor in all races around the U.S. He also brought him to Europe, where Taylor found great success — in 1902 he won 40 of his 57 races there, often against the world’s top riders — and became a favorite of the crowds, especially in France.

Kiser later switched to racing automobiles and set world speed records while driving the famed Winton Bullet, but his career ended when he lost one of his legs in a crash at a Cleveland race in 1905.

He later became a well-known auto dealer in Dayton and real estate developer in Miami Beach. He has two streets named for him here — Earl and Herbert streets — and is buried in Woodland Cemetery near the Wright brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The same year Kiser was hurt in Cleveland, Taylor earned more than $30,000 as a cyclist. By comparison, baseball star Honus Wagner made $5,000.

Later in life, a series of bad investments, expensive medical issues and finally the stock market crash left Taylor broke. He died a pauper in 1932.

“He was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago until the Schwinn family and some other cycling advocates exhumed his body and had him buried in a well-known cemetery there,” Brown said.

In recent years Taylor has gotten some long-overdue recognition. Indianapolis named the city’s velodrome after him. Columbus renamed the Alum Creek bicycle path the Major Taylor Bikeway. Worecester named a street after him and Nike markets a Major Taylor shoe.

Brown said in 2007 — thanks to an effort spearheaded by Judge Bill Littlejohn and Marc Harris — the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Dayton was launched. Over the years its annual signature event has awarded scholarships to Central State, made donations to Mercy Manor and the Dakota Center and funded a children’s bicycle safety program in Dayton.

“Major Taylor did a lot of good back when he was racing and now we want to continue that in his name,” Brown said. “He showed people you could overcome every obstacle put in front of you — and do it with a humble heart and peacefulness, not a bitterness. We believe those lessons still are worth learning today.

“That’s why we wear our shirts. We want people to ask.”

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