In 2020, letters from a young Marshall “Major” Taylor were donated to the American Antiquarian Society by Constance L. Whitehead Hanks. Taylor, a Worcester resident, was the first African American to win the title of cycling world champion, in 1899, and the second Black athlete to win a world championship in any sport. He is considered by many to be the greatest American sprint cyclist of all time.
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Major Taylor faced violence and hate during his career as a successful Black man in a white-dominated sport. Once, after a race in Taunton in September 1897, he was choked to unconsciousness by William Becker, a Minneapolis cyclist whom Taylor had edged out for second place in a race. The day after the incident Taylor boarded a train to Cleveland to compete in another race. One of the letters housed at AAS is dated on the Sunday after the attack occurred, September 26, 1897. Taylor does not directly address the incident in the letter – instead, he writes of his successes at the Cleveland races:
“I created a big sensation here among the colored population by winning out yesterday, and among the whites as well.”
The Major Taylor Association has put together a video featuring a breakdown of Taylor’s letters, which can be viewed here:
Additionally, an article featuring conversation between Lynne Tolman, president of the Major Taylor Association, and Andrew Ritchie, author of “Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer,” has been published in The Boneshaker. The article is available here:
The AAS cataloging record for the letters can be found here: