One day 18 years ago, I traveled to Pittsburgh to meet a 96-year-old woman named Sydney Taylor. At the time, I was a reporter for the
and I wanted to write a magazine story about her father, Major Taylor. A half century before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, Taylor had become the first American-born black world champion in any sport. He was a cyclist at a time when bicycle races were the most popular athletic competitions in America.
Sydney, named after the Australian city where she was born, and her father had raced, told me stories both sad and wonderful. She remembered cheering for her father at races in Paris, where he had become the toast of Europe. But she also recalled how badly her father was treated, the death threats, the racism, the unfairness of it all.
magazine published the story, I was overwhelmed with reaction from readers in the days when comments came via old-fashioned letters. It was published the weekend after the September 11 attacks, and many people told me Taylor’s story had given them something inspirational at a time when they needed it. The response led me to think me about writing a book that would tell not just about Taylor’s life, but also about the era in which he lived, when the racist policies of the Jim Crow era intersected with the ostentatious grandeur of the Gilded Age.
Taylor, it turned out, was one of the most chronicled African-Americans of his day, the late 1890s and early 1900s. Thousands of articles were written about him around the world, in myriad languages. He was a favorite subject of early practitioners of sports photojournalism. Over the years, I collected many of these stories and photographs, read histories of the era, and gradually began assembling material for a book.
The more I studied Taylor and his time, the more his courage and skill impressed me. It was hard enough to win against the world’s fastest cyclists. His competitors tried to keep him off the race course – ostensibly due to Jim Crow restrictions, but in reality because they knew he could beat them and disprove the false rationale for their prejudice. His races were promoted as “white versus black,” and he embraced his role, knowing that he could provide hope at a time when the government so often used its power against African Americans.
Taylor became the world’s fastest man, setting records for speed and becoming champion at an international competition in Canada. He was, as the subtitle of the book puts it, America’s first black sports hero. Today, while many people may have never heard of him, more cyclists and non-cyclists alike are increasingly embracing his story, creating and joining clubs that carry his name. Often, I have found myself on a club ride, or elsewhere, pedaling next to someone who happens to be wearing a jersey bearing Taylor’s image. I cannot resist the urge to tell them that I once interviewed Taylor’s daughter and that my shelves are filled with stories of his career. More than once, I said that one day I would finish a book about him.
Now, all these years later, that book is being published on May 7. I invite you to read his story, and, if you are able, to join me at a talk at Politics and Prose on Sunday May 19 at 5 p.m. (after your ride is finished!). The bookstore location is:
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20008
Michael Kranish is an investigative political reporter for The Washington Post. He is the author of “Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.” He is the co-author of the Boston Globe’s biographies of John F. Kerry and Mitt Romney and the Washington Post’s biography of Donald Trump.