Riding With Major Taylor
John W. Tolbert III and his son, Jonathan W. Tolbert IV, remember the legacy of Marshall "Major" Taylor, a professional African American cyclist who stormed the cycling scene and broke racial barriers in the late 1800s.
Major Taylor became the inspiration for a Columbus-based bicycle club that’s now 40 years old. John III told his son they didn’t know much about cycling when they started, and none of them had heard of the man who would be the club’s namesake.
Unlike other African American sports trailblazers such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinsons, Marshall "Major" Taylor's story is not widely known. That was certainlly the case for the seven founding members of the cycling club that would bear his name.
Marshall "Major" Taylor's career starting in the 1890s. During the course of his career, he would become a world champion and break several world records in cycling, but faced racist threats, intimidation and violence.
"Quite often he was the only African American in those races, and he would win," John III said. "After those races, they would beat him up or tell him he couldn't race anymore."
Major Taylor later traveled to Europe where he achieved great success and popularity.
"By going to Europe, he saw that not everybody had something against being black," John III said, "It was only when he came back to America that he had problems of race."
Major Taylor was an inspiration for John and the other cycling club members who decided to name the club in his honor in 1979.
Jonathan W. Tolbert IV asked his father if the black cycling club was accepted by the rest of the cycling community when they started. "Did people take you seriously?" he asked.
"The cycling community is pretty welcoming," John III said. In fact, more experienced cycists helped the novice cycling club figure out what bikes to buy and how to upgrade them.
Over time, the club gained a repuation for speed and today there are Major Taylor Cycling Clubs across the country.
When asked how he got interested in cycling in the first place, John III explained that many of the founding club members where former athletes who couldn't play basketball or football competively any longer. So, they decided to try cycling.
Their first big ride was the Tour of the Scioto River Valley, an over 200 hundred-mile roundtrip journey.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," John III said, "As a result of that, I saw that there was a whole different world of camaraderie and challenges."
John W. Tolbert III says cycling has been a rewarding part of his life, allowing him the stay healthy and giving him a tool to reach out to others in the community.
"I'll ride as long as I can get my leg over the bike, and then, if they have a tricycle, I'll try that too," he said.
John W. Tolbert III and his son Jonathan W. Tolbert IV were recorded during StoryCorps' recent visit to Columbus. To hear more stories from your neighbors, be sure to subscribe to the StoryCorps COLUMBUS podcast on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Leticia Wiggins, host: Welcome to StoryCorps Columbus. I'm Leticia Wiggins. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that collects and preserves stories from across the country in a mobile recording studio. StoryCorps Columbus brings you interviews from central Ohioans who shared their stories during StoryCorps' recent visit to our city. Today, riding with Major Taylor for 40 years. Marshall Major Taylor was a professional African-American cyclist who stormed the cycling scene and broke racial barriers in the late eighteen hundreds. Jonathan William Tolbert IV talks to his father, John W. Tolbert III about how Major Taylor became the namesake for a Columbus-based bicycle club that's 40 years old. John III tells his son. They didn't know much about riding bikes when they started and none of them had heard of the man who would become the club's namesake.
John III: So one of our founding members was in a bike shop one day and he saw this article on Marshall Major Taylor, a black cyclist, 1898, and he picked it up and he read the history of Marshall Taylor and came back to Columbus and said we ought to start a cycling club. And we did. And seven of us started a club and named it after Marshall Major Taylor. So, give you some background in the eighteen hundreds, when he first got into cycling, he entered a number of races and quite often he was the only African-American in those races and he would win. And after those races, they would beat him up or tell him he couldn't race anymore. Knowing the kind of prejudice that he faced, that was just prevalent during those times. Jim Crow, the whole nine yards. But but he ascended above that because by going to Europe, he saw that not everybody had something against being black. And so he flourished in Europe. It was only when he came back to America that he had the problems of race, which we all know is a historical fact. But the point is that for us who decided to name the club after Major Taylor's cycling, it was a proud thing because nobody heard of him. We knew the Jackie Robinson's, you know, all those good folks, those athletes, you know, who broke the color barrier for a number of reasons. But in cycling, a black? I mean, with all the Tour de Frances you never saw a black cyclist.
John IV: Right.
John III: Here's the interesting thing. As we became more known as a cycling club under the name of Major Taylor, we would go on rides all around the country. And it was more white people that knew about Major Taylor than the black folks.
John IV: How were you guys? Were you guys accepted in the cycling community? Did people take you seriously? I would assume that, you know, it's kind of similar to to any minorities that show up into a sport that that's not really recognized and in their culture and they breakthrough that they're met with a little bit of backlash. Did you guys ever face any of that or?
John III: No, the cycling community's pretty welcoming. So let me start with being accepted. The only thing that we didn't have at first were good bikes. I mean, I was riding around on Huffys, you know. Bikes that weigh fifteen, sixteen pounds. And, you know, we kept wondering why everybody else could just go off and leave us. Well, over time we figured out like, you got to get a real bike. So, you know, we got a lot of help from individuals that we didn't even know about, what bikes to buy and stuff like that. And we upgraded our bikes, but we never had any problems with, you know, any kind of prejudice with our club. Actually, our club is very diverse. We have blacks, whites, anybody, male or female in the club, which was really great from the very get go. So as time went on, we became more acceptable. And how did we get ourself emerged into the cycling community? Because we were fast and everybody wanted to hook onto our line when we're riding because they knew we rode fast. And so over time, the word spread about Major Taylor's Cycling Club of Columbus. And now we have probably about 30 or more different clubs across the country under the name of Major Taylor.
John IV: So how does a black man from southern Virginia get into cycling?
John III: That's another good question. You're on point today. Well, five guys that I've been hanging out with in Columbus back in the early 70s, all them were athletes at my. One of them, Lloyd Pate, played for the Buffalo Bills and got replaced by OJ Simpson. So, you know, I couldn't play basketball anymore. He couldn't play football anymore. And the other guys couldn't play their sports. So they just decided to go cycling. And what happened was one of the guys who had been cycling for years said, why don't you all ride this ride down to Portsmouth, which was two hundred and ten miles roundtrip. So we did it. That was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And as a result of that, I saw that there was a whole different world of camaraderie and challenges. Last week, we did a ride with New Salem Baptist Church and on the sidewalk there were residents who were watching us come down the street.
John IV: Yeah.
John III: We heard for the first time a group of young black kids say, wow, we've never seen that many black people on a bicycle.
John IV: Right.
John III: So. So that.
John IV: So how did that make you feel?
John III: That made us feel great. I'm actually some of us stopped and gave them our website number and a phone number, said if you want get into cycling, just call us. It's been rewarding to me because it's been something that keeps me healthy. You know, I'm always talking to you about what to eat, what not to eat. So it has had a real impact on my attitude toward my health. I've got friends that don't cycle and I look at them and I shake my head because they aren't doing anything. So I'll ride as long as I can get my leg over the bike. And then if they've got a tricycle I'll try that too.
Leticia Wiggins, host: StoryCorps Columbus is a production of WOSU Public Media. This episode was produced by Brent Davis with audio editing by Leticia Wiggins and Mike Thompson. Additional podcast editing by Michael DeBonis, WOSU's Digital Content Director is Nick Houser, our Chief Content Director of Arts, Life and Culture is Brent Davis. Hear something that resonates with you? Share this episode on social media and subscribe to the StoryCorps Columbus podcast at WOSU.ORG/StoryCorpsColumbus or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.