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Uncovering The Story Of Cyclist Major Taylor, America's 1st Black Sports Star

By Dave Davies | FA
Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

At the height of America's Jim Crow era, Taylor broke barriers by becoming the country's fastest and most famous cyclist. Michael Kranish tells his story in the new book, The World's Fastest Man.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, one of the most famous athletes in America was an African American who had set countless records in a sport that had long shunned people of color. Major Taylor was a championship bicycle racer around the turn of the century, when cycling was America's most popular sport.

His remarkable career is the subject of a new book by our guest Michael Kranish. He writes that Taylor had to compete in the Jim Crow-era, when white promoters in both the North and South tried to keep him out of races, and white riders cursed and insulted him and sometimes tried to injure him in races. Taylor's talent made him such a sensation that he became a popular attraction at races in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. He's covered national politics for The Boston Globe and The Post and is the co-author of books about Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book, "The World's Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Cyclist Major Taylor, America's First Black Sports Hero."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Michael Kranish, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This is a remarkable story, and it's about race in America and sports. It also occurs at a particular moment for the bicycle. Bikes were a big deal around the turn of the century, weren't they?

MICHAEL KRANISH: They really were. In the early part of the 1890s, there were the big high-wheeled bicycles - people may know them as penny-farthings. But by the middle of the 1890s, the bicycle that we know today - which they called then the safety bicycle because it was much safer to ride - became a sensation. In the mid-1890s, there were about 300 cars in the country; there were about 5 million bicycles. Many of the patents in the country were for bicycles. So suddenly, people wanted to get rid of their horse and buggy and go on a bicycle, and they really swept the country.

DAVIES: And a lot of the newer - the riders of these new contraptions were women. Were they seen by leaders of the suffrage movement as, you know, agents of independence for women?

KRANISH: Well, one of the really interesting things about researching this book is you get a world that's so different from today, it's almost hard to imagine. This is before there are subways. There's some elevated trains and, of course, street-level trains. The horse and buggy is dominant all over New York City, for example. It's filled with the droppings of the horses, if you will. The bicycle was seen as this sleek, modern, futuristic type of machine that you could ride anytime you want, and it was a symbol of independence.

So for women, for example, a lot of women started wearing bloomers instead of dresses so they could ride a bicycle. One of the suffragist leaders titled her autobiography "How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle." So you really get a sense that this was a changing moment for African Americans, also, as a way to get around some of the separation and racist policies of the time. So for many people, just like today, you get on a bike and you feel a sort of a sense of freedom, it really was more than that; it was freedom for many people.

DAVIES: And in what way did it allow African Americans to sort of get around the separation that they faced?

KRANISH: Well, in 1896, there was the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which was brought by a gentleman in Louisiana who was told that he could not ride with whites on a train there. He sued, but the Supreme Court said, in their decision in 1896, that separate but equal accommodations were OK. So for a lot of blacks, that institutionalized the Jim Crow laws of the era, and they couldn't go in the same cars, for example, as whites in many parts of the country. You get on a bicycle, you're pretty much on your own. So for African Americans, this also was a symbol of freedom.

DAVIES: What about bike racing? How popular was it?

KRANISH: At the time - it's extraordinary to think about this today - but this was the most popular sport in the country in the 1890s, more so even than baseball and boxing, for example. And the type of racing that was done was done in these cathedrals of cycling called velodromes. These are like today's Indy 500 tracks. They're ovals. The racers would go at extraordinary speeds. Racing around a velodrome track, you're tightly packed. You're going - if you are following certain pacing type of vehicles - up to 40 miles or more an hour.

It was extraordinarily dangerous. Many people were seriously injured or even killed on the track. There are horrific stories of people being amputated, being rushed to the hospital, losing their life. It really was a dangerous sport. That may have been, in fact, part of the attraction for people to come out. It was a difficult, dangerous, high-speed sport.

DAVIES: So let's talk about Marshall Taylor, who came to be known as Major. Tell us a little about his family.

KRANISH: Well, Major Taylor's father, Gilbert Taylor - they grew up in Kentucky - he served for the North in the Civil War. He actually, as it turned out in my research, was there at the fall of Richmond. So he was there at the decisive moment of the Civil War. He came back. He eventually decided to leave Kentucky, move his family to Indiana, and that's where Marshall Taylor was born. Marshall Taylor grew up in Indianapolis and became friends with a wealthy white boy's family and basically became, what he called, like a millionaire's son. He played with this boy. The other boy had a bicycle, and the family gave Marshall Taylor a bicycle.

And he became very enamored of the bicycle. He felt very free, didn't experience, in his early years, the kind of prejudice that a lot of other African Americans in his own family had experienced. So for him, growing up in Indianapolis, initially, it was an extraordinary upbringing - feeling like you're part of this wealthy family, riding a bicycle wherever you might want to go.

DAVIES: You write about a case - I think, in 1895, there was a big race in Indianapolis, where a promoter had promised a prize worth $300, and it assembled a bunch of racers. But Taylor figured they would never let him in as a black rider. So what did he do?

KRANISH: Well, Taylor's allies, in that case, had him hide in the bushes, and as the race began, they urged him to enter. So he did that. When the white riders realized that Taylor was among them, Taylor feared that they were going to try to ambush him or do something. But in the end, he was allowed to compete, and he won that race. And it was one of the longest races of his life, other than multiday events which he later competed in.

DAVIES: Right. And the white riders threatened - actually, probably if they'd been able to catch him, would have harmed him, right?

KRANISH: Well, at this time, Taylor wasn't sure what would happen, and he certainly feared that. He certainly heard about a lot of bad things happening. But he hadn't experienced that himself so much, so he just kept on racing as fast as he could. And he thought, if something happens to me here on the track, that's OK. He just wanted to race as fast as he could and test himself.

DAVIES: Now, there's another important figure in his life here - a former champion racer, Louis de Franklin Munger.

KRANISH: So this important mentor that entered Taylor's life, his name was Louis de Franklin Birdie Munger; Birdie was his nickname. He had been a high-wheel era champion of the bicycle. Then he switched to making bicycling in Indianapolis.

He was aware that Major Taylor was working at a bike store nearby, and he went to see Major Taylor race. He was astonished when he took out a stopwatch to see that Major Taylor was coming close to making world records, unofficially, as he raced around the track. Birdie Munger knew just about as well as anybody in the country what it took to be a racer, and he believed that this young man that he was witnessing had the potential to be a champion racer.

DAVIES: So what did he do for him?

KRANISH: Well, he basically took him under his wing - fittingly, for his nickname Birdie. He made a bicycle for him that was a state-of-the-art bicycle from his bicycle manufacturing company there in Indianapolis and started to train him, brought him into his workshop, brought him into the factory. He had a part of the factory that he called the bachelor quarters, and he let Major Taylor work there, bring him meals, help around the bike factory and basically taught him everything that he knew about bicycling - introduced him to other great cyclists who came through Indianapolis. So at this very early age, Major Taylor was learning from the very best cyclists in the country how to be a champion racer.

DAVIES: They moved to Worcester, Mass. Why did they want to make that move? I mean, I guess Birdie Munger was actually making bikes in Indianapolis; that's where Taylor's family was. Why did they move all the way to Massachusetts?

KRANISH: Well, a terrible thing happened to Major Taylor in Indianapolis. He basically had not experienced much prejudice compared to other African Americans. One day, as he tried to improve his cycling skills, he went to the local YMCA. And he was told there, sorry, you can't enter. Why, Major Taylor asked? And they told him, basically, because you are black. Taylor, up to this point, said that he had never experienced what he later called the, quote, "monster prejudiced." He was appalled. Other white families who supported Taylor went to the YMCA, tried to get him in, but the YMCA refused. Birdie Munger was outraged. Birdie Munger had seen a lot of terrible things in his own life, a lot of prejudiced, and he was an extraordinary humanitarian. He believed so strongly in Major Taylor that he insisted on standing by him, even when his own business partners said he shouldn't be associating with a black person. So at a certain point, Birdie Munger decided that they would move to Massachusetts. They - Birdie Munger would start a new factory there, and he urged Taylor to join him. And Taylor eventually, with his parents' blessings, did join Birdie Munger in Worcester, Mass.

DAVIES: Michael Kranish is the author of the new book "The World's Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Cyclist Major Taylor." We'll be back after a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Kranish. He's an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and the author of a new book about Major Taylor, an African American cyclist who broke speed records and achieved worldwide fame around the turn of the century. It's called "The World's Fastest Man."

You describe an event in Madison Square Garden that was a big deal. You want to just set this up for us? What was - there was a bike expo and a big race that was planned. Just kind of describe what the scene was.

KRANISH: Sure. Well, in 1896, New York City was the center of the cycling craze. Everywhere you looked, there were streams of bicyclists going down the pathways and the streets. And the center of that craze, in New York City itself, was Madison Square Garden. The iteration of 1896 was the great building built by the architect Stanford White. Not, of course, the one we know today. And this was over by what is called Madison Square Park. This building was the great arena of the country, and it hosted many cycling races. They would have 15, 20,000 people attend races there. Well, Birdie Munger had been training Major Taylor. And he decided that Major Taylor, in December of 1896, was ready to compete in his first professional match. A lot of the races Taylor had been in before then were amateur races.

So here in 1896 was the greatest race of the day. It was called the Six-Day Race because the idea was to race for six days straight, take an hour break here or there, and whoever accumulated the most miles at the end of six days was the winner. It was an inhumane contest. Some people tried to get them banned. And cyclists often said this took years off your life because it was so draining to compete in. So here's 18-year-old Major Taylor in 1896, seven months after the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, which institutionalized these Jim Crow restrictions. And here is this young black man competing against all the other racers, who were all white, the best cyclists in the world.

DAVIES: And there was one particular cyclist who was a champion, Eddie Bald - B-A-L-D - who had the nickname Cannon Bald. They became real rivals, didn't they?

KRANISH: They did. Eddie Cannon Bald was the greatest sprinter in the country, a very dashing figure. He was the on the face of many products. He envisioned himself as a future Broadway star. His picture was in newspapers across the country. He was one of the superstars of the day before that word was even used. Major Taylor was basically unknown. Major Taylor had gotten himself into this race by going to the promoters and asking for a racing license. The promoters had said, if a black man comes to this race, you know, there'll be riots in New York City. You can't do that. Shouldn't you be, one of the promoters said, shining the shoes the gentlemen on Fifth Avenue? And Major Taylor replied, no. I should be competing against the best racers in the world.

Eventually, Major Taylor convinced the promoters, who were looking for a way to increase attendance, that if he would race against the whites that they could promote it that way, that there would be a race heralded as black against white. Eventually, promoters thought that was a good idea, and that's what they did. They gave Major Taylor his racing license. And that set the stage for him to compete against the very best racers in the world at Madison Square Garden.

DAVIES: Right. Now, there was going to be this endurance test, this Six-Day Race, where you accumulate as many miles as you can. But before that, there were some shorter races, right, which cyclists would compete with one another in shorter sprints, right?

KRANISH: That's right. So before the Six-Day Race, there was a half-mile preliminary race. It was a sprint. These sprints were incredibly exciting to watch. They drew large crowds. Major Taylor's specialty was the sprint. And the other great sprinter in the world was Eddie Cannon Bald because he could shoot from behind like a ball from a cannon. That's how he got his nickname. So at the appointed moment, Major Taylor, other racers and Eddie Bald lined up at the starting line, and it was five laps around the track. So this was Major Taylor's first real professional race. Madison Square Garden, at the time, was filled. It was a very grimy, smoky arena. Major Taylor said later that there was so much grime from the ground, the dust, the tobacco, the fumes, that he looked around at other racers, and he said these other racers - who were white, of course - could have been mistaken for his brother. You couldn't see around the curvature of the track, he said, because there was so much smoke and dust.

Nonetheless, the starter's pistol was shot, and they went around the track. For four laps, Major Taylor was in the lead. He thought he had won the race. He threw his hands up. And then he heard his trainers from the South Brooklyn Wheelmen's Club say, no, there's one more lap to go. Eddie Cannon Bald was suddenly catching up to him. Major Taylor himself then leapt forward like a ball from a cannon, and he managed to win the race against Eddie Cannon Bald.

Eddie Bald was mortified. But this was Major Taylor's entrance on the scene. And the international press was there 'cause there were racers from all around the world, and they were covered by their local press. So right at that moment, Major Taylor enters the world of racing as a sensation, becomes very well-known very quickly.

DAVIES: And what did Eddie Cannon Bald - what was his reaction to being beaten by a black man?

KRANISH: Well, he used some racial epithets, and he couldn't believe that he had been beaten by a black man. You have to realize that at this time, and what's so extraordinary about Major Taylor's story, is that he wasn't racing just for his own personal glory. He really thought that he was racing to make a greater point. This was a time in which the eugenics movement, or racist movement, was protruding forward the idea that blacks were inherently mentally and physically inferior. There was extraordinary racism. The Jim Crow laws of the day were being institutionalized.

So for a lot of African Americans, they were trying to disprove those theories. Major Taylor, as a unique individual, able to get this permission to race in a race against whites, had a lot riding on his shoulders when he took his wheel at Madison Square Garden. He wanted to win the race and also disprove the racist theories of the time. So his trainer, Birdie Munger, also had that in mind. So they had a great mission that they wanted to accomplish on this day.

DAVIES: After this half-mile sprint, there was this six-day endurance contest at which the racers' goal was to get - accumulate as many miles as possible. You say this was - really wasn't what Taylor should have been doing. He did it anyway. How did he do?

KRANISH: Well, Major Taylor was under agreement to in the six-day race. There's no way that Major Taylor - who was 5'7", maybe about 140, 150 pounds - should race in this race; he was built to be a different kind of racer. But going six days, 18 years old, really no training for this - he really didn't have any business being there. But that's how we got to this point - he'd agreed to do it.

Eddie Bald, who he'd beaten in the sprint, in fact, would not race in the six-day race. He was a sprinter. So instead, he held the starter's pistol. Major Taylor was somewhat surprised to see the man he'd just defeated in the sprint not compete against him in the six-day. But there were a lot of other great racers who did agree to compete in the six-day race.

So the race took off. It was extraordinarily difficult. Birdie Munger, his trainer, was there and basically had to trick him time and time again to stay on his bike. He would say to Major Taylor, you just took an hour rest; in fact, it was just a few minutes. He would say to Major Taylor, this special potion will make you go - last much longer; it was just bicarbonate of soda. There was a point in the race in which Major Taylor said he was hallucinating. He screamed out, there's a man chasing me around the track with a knife. There's another point at which Major Taylor was given a pillow to fasten to the handlebars so he could lean over, not go asleep, but give his body a little bit of rest.

It was extraordinarily difficult and, as many said at the time, inhumane. Later on, when Theodore Roosevelt, who then was the police commissioner, later became governor, he basically banned this type of race because it was so dangerous. He was aware that Major Taylor, by the way, was racing in this race and later became a fan. But for Major Taylor to compete really was extraordinary. Many riders in this race dropped out. It was much expected that Major Taylor also would drop out. But incredibly, he managed to stay on for all six days. And in the end, he completed the race and went 1,700 miles. So at this point, having won the sprint, having stayed in the six-day race to the end, he really did become an international sensation.

DAVIES: Right. So at this point, I mean, his career takes off. And he goes around the North and the Midwest and he races a lot, sometimes against Eddie Bald, the racist white guy, and against many others. What did he face on the track from the white riders and in the locker rooms?

KRANISH: Well, in the very early days, there were some whites who dismissed him; they thought he wasn't a threat. But when he did so well at Madison Square Garden, they realized that he was a threat to them. And pretty quickly, they came to believe that he was basically taking away their winnings. This was a time period when a cyclist could earn $10,000 or more a year; this was an extraordinary amount of money in the late 1890s, of course.

They went after Major Taylor. A lot of the white riders were very racist. They tried to cite Jim Crow restrictions. There were many racers that basically got Taylor banned. There were some racers that put death threats against Major Taylor. Major Taylor kept a scrapbook, which was very helpful to me in my research for this book, and a number of those headlines talked about death threats against Major Taylor. He really faced a lot of difficulties. But he thought it was important. There were times when he said, no, I'm going to race anyway.

But there came a moment when he was banned so frequently that his trainer, Birdie Munger, came up with an audacious idea. There was a lotion being marketed in a racist way to blacks at the time that was portrayed as lightening your skin so you can almost look like a white person. Well, Birdie Munger convinced Major Taylor to apply this lotion to himself. So for several days, Birdie Munger and another person applied this lotion to Major Taylor. It did not make him look white; it burned his skin. It was incredibly painful. And after several days, they all agreed enough is enough. Major Taylor, after that point, said, never again will I try to let someone pass me off as anything other than I am, and he used the racism against him as his great motivation.

DAVIES: Did the white racers try to either hurt him or impede him on the track?

KRANISH: When you're a racer on the track in these tightly packed formations of riders, it would be very easy for a competitor to put his elbow basically against you; just the slightest push could knock you off balance and cause you to crash. Or they could block you in what they called a pocket. There'd be several riders around you, and it'd be very difficult to get at. Taylor was very adept at trying to escape these pockets. But it was a very, very dangerous sport. Taylor later wrote that 11 of his competitors, at the least, died on the track in very difficult races. So he knew how dangerous this was. And racing in this kind of formation did attract a lot of spectator interest, but it was a death-defying feat on many occasions.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author of the new book, "The World's Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Cyclist Major Taylor, America's First Black Sports Hero." After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. Maureen Corrigan will review new crime and suspense novels she recommends for summer reading, and Ken Tucker will review Willie Nelson's new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "JUMP START - THE MASTERY OF MELANCHOLY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who's written a new book about America's first African American sports hero. This was decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

Major Taylor was a championship bicycle racer around the turn of the century when cycling was America's most popular sport. He competed in the Jim Crow era when white promoters in both the North and South tried to keep him out of races, and white riders cursed and insulted him and sometimes tried to injure him in races. Kranish's new book about Major Taylor is called "The World's Fastest Man."

DAVIES: Major Taylor had enormous talent, but encountered enormous resistance racing in the United States. It was a struggle everywhere, so he kind of looked beyond the borders of the States. Where did he go?

KRANISH: Well, he had set speed records, won a national championship, was the world's fastest man, really, by competing in a race in Chicago in 1899. By virtue of that, he was invited to compete in the world championships, which happened to be being held in Montreal later that summer. So he went to Montreal.

A lot of the white racers he competed against in the U.S. refused to go to the championships simply because they didn't want to be in the same racetrack as Major Taylor. But other racers did go, and the best racers from around the world did attend that match.

When Major Taylor had won races in the U.S., oftentimes, the band would play a racist tune, such as "Dixie." Well, Major Taylor went to Montreal. He competed in the world championships, and he won the world championship. And when he did that, for the first time in his career, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played for him. And he said at that time that when he heard "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in Canada, he had never felt more proud to be an American.

So it's a sad commentary that he had to go to Canada to hear that. But for him, it tells you he was proud to be an American, proud to be a black American, but was very distressed that he had to go to Canada to hear his own national anthem.

After winning that championship, promoters from around the world came to Major Taylor, asking that he race there. And for several years, promoters from France, which was the center of cycling in the world then as it is now, came to him and asked him to race there. For a couple of years, Major Taylor said no because he'd promised his mother he would not race on Sunday for religious reasons. And the French had insisted upon that.

Finally, in 1901, there was a deal struck. The French said, you don't have to race on Sundays. And Major Taylor did agree to go to Paris to race there, and he raced against the very best racers of Europe.

DAVIES: And then he traveled other places in Europe, too, and raced and did well, right?

KRANISH: He did. He won championships all across Europe. He really was a sensation across Europe. And he went there numerous times. It really was unique. There were some other black racers, but there really was no one else at this point in cycling or sports that was like Major Taylor.

So for perspective, this was well before Jack Johnson became the world heavyweight champion. He was an African American. That was in 1908.

In fact, Jack Johnson, who a lot of people know about as one of the early African American champions - well, he initially was a cyclist. He wanted to emulate Major Taylor. One day, he was in a race around the track in Texas, and he was seriously injured. And he said later that he decided at that moment he wanted to go into a less dangerous sport - boxing.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

KRANISH: So the idea here is that Major Taylor in the 1890s, early 1900s - he really is the first African American sports hero, if you will. It's one of the subtitles of the book. Later on, it's Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens. It's a half-century before Jackie Robinson.

I feel very confident in saying that if those three great champions were on this line talking to us - that they would agree Major Taylor paved the way. He was very well-known at that time. And for athletes competing in that era, you know, they were very aware that Major Taylor paved the way.

DAVIES: Right. That said, I mean, he comes back from Europe, having defeated the French champion and won races all over the continent. Was he treated as a national hero when he got back?

KRANISH: Well, it's a sad story. He comes back in this steamer, and there are great millionaires on the same trip. There's J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Pierre Lorillard. He gets off the ship, and he has to go straight to a race in New York City.

And he is just so seasick, so tired from his journey from France that he really can't compete. And he basically says, I can't do this; I'm just too ill. And instead of understanding, the racing officials basically said, you're fined; you're banned; you've agreed to race. So it was a terrible period.

Major Taylor says, basically, you know, this is ridiculous. You know, I quit. This was a repeating pattern, frankly, for Major Taylor. He just was so angry at being constantly sent off like this - fined, banned.

But the racing officials eventually realized he was just too great an attraction. They needed him, and there were other promoters that picked up the slack. They said, if you're going to ban him, we'll create an entire new league featuring Major Taylor. And in fact, that's what happened.

DAVIES: Right. And when he needed - when he was traveling, could he get into a decent hotel or a restaurant, even in the North?

KRANISH: Well, he had been put up in the finest hotels of Europe. He comes back to the United States. Oftentimes, in the South, he'd been banned. But even in the North - for example, there's an incident I describe in the book in Syracuse, N.Y. And sadly, even there, there were two hotels that basically wouldn't let him stay.

So it was a sad moment. And there was a newspaper reporter who wrote at that point, here's a man - was the toast of Europe, comes back, can't even stay in a decent hotel in New York. It was a very sort of revelatory moment that he faced this extraordinary racism, no matter his accomplishments.

DAVIES: He retires from racing, I guess, in his 30s - right? - a wealthy man. But things didn't go so well, did they? What happened?

KRANISH: Well, he leaves his last race around 1910. He always wanted to be a business titan. He always had the idea, I want to earn enough to basically take care of my family and then start a business.

So he did have the idea of going into the tire business. He knew a lot about tires, of course, as a cyclist. The automobile age had dawned, so he wanted to create a company that would build automobile tires that would be steel-belted. He was way ahead of his time, as he so often was. He put about $15,000 into this business. Patents were bought by somebody else.

In the end, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the business did not succeed. His family later told me they felt that there were some racist reasons involved in the lack of success here because other companies - used basically the same idea - were successful. So Major Taylor sadly then had to go into other fields and did not have as much money as he did previously. So it was a difficult moment for him.

World War I dawned. He did sign up for that. He was not drafted, but this was a difficult moment because, basically, the world had moved on. The auto age had come. World War I had came. And he was becoming forgotten.

DAVIES: Right. He was - also had, you know, a lot of demands from members of his extended family who naturally saw him as someone who could help. So they were - he was being asked to help with their living expenses and bills, which created some tension with his wife Daisy. You describe that. The marriage ultimately didn't survive, did it?

KRANISH: Well, he didn't get divorced, but they did separate. So in the 1920s, sadly, at some point, Marshall Taylor - Major Taylor - and his wife separated. They lived apart.

Major Taylor, in the 1920s, felt it was very important for his story to be remembered. It was a time period when, after the movie "Birth Of A Nation" had led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the Klan was on the rise. He was appalled. In fact, the largest Klan rally in the history of New England was held in the mid-1920s, just a few miles from his house, while he was writing his autobiography.

It must've been a very difficult moment for Major Taylor. But he thought, all the more important that people remember his story and what his race had faced in days earlier and that you could, if you tried hard enough, persevere.

So he worked very hard on his autobiography. He could not find a publisher. He even wrote to W. E. B. DuBois, the great African American leader who then was the editor of the NAAC magazine - NAACP magazine The Crisis, asking that the book be serialized. DuBois looked at this great manuscript and said, this is much too long; perhaps we can write one story about it.

In the end, Major Taylor basically self-published, through a person there in Worcester, his autobiography. But he was not able to sell a lot of copies. The Depression was coming on, and he eventually had to leave his house, move to Chicago and move into a YMCA, where he basically was provided lodging at the height of the Depression. So it is a difficult ending to his story there in Chicago.

DAVIES: The end was particularly sad. I mean, he lost the home. He and his wife separated. I think she ended up in New Orleans. He ends up in Chicago on his own. And then what happens?

KRANISH: Well, in Chicago, there is a gentleman there in city politics who remembered Major Taylor 'cause they'd raced together many years earlier. And he puts him up at the YMCA.

Major Taylor is basically forgotten, becomes very ill. And he dies, and he's buried in a pauper's grave. And his wife didn't even know he died. His daughter did not even know he died. There is a notice in the African American newspaper there in Chicago, but very little notice elsewhere. And it is sad to think that Major Taylor was not remembered for the remarkable achievements that he made.

Later on, there were other great African American athletes who basically wanted to right this wrong, and they had him reburied in a proper grave in 1948 with a proper monument to his accomplishments - that he had been the world's fastest man and one of the greatest athletes of his era.

DAVIES: I know that you first wrote about Major Taylor, I guess, in 2001 in a magazine piece a long time ago. And you've worked on this for a long time. Why is this story important to us?

KRANISH: I think Major Taylor's story is very important to us not just because he was an extraordinary athlete - I don't expect anyone to want to know about racing stars of the 1890s, 1900s. Why he's so important is that he really belongs in the pantheon of civil rights leaders as a sports athlete, as he was.

He was able to use his athleticism and his championships for a greater purpose - to show that the racist theories of eugenics and other things were wrong; that a black man, given a fair shake, an equal chance, could do even better than anyone else, basically, on the planet; that all he needed was a fair shake. That was the message that he delivered again and again as he triumphed against the greatest champions of his era.

So we look back at a lot of athletes. We look back at Jackie Robinson, the extraordinary accomplishments that he made, while even a half-century before that, in incredibly difficult conditions, Major Taylor did accomplish something that was so difficult. And he triumphed again and again against the greatest odds.

DAVIES: Michael Kranish, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KRANISH: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Michael Kranish is the author of the new book "The World's Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Cyclist Major Taylor, America's First Black Sports Hero." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan has two noir novels to recommend for summer reading. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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