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Interview: Andrew Ritchie, by Lynne Tolman

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Andrew Ritchie, the author of Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, recently came across a letter from African-American cyclist Major Taylor that was published in Bearings magazine on Feb. 9, 1894. The full text of the letter can be read here (or you can download a PDF of it here). In an email interview with Lynne Tolman, president of the Major Taylor Association, Ritchie discusses what the letter tells him about the very early career of the future world champion.

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An early photograph of a young Major Taylor (all images courtesy of Andrew Ritchie)
An early photograph of a young Major Taylor (all images courtesy of Andrew Ritchie)

Lynne Tolman: The letter was published under the heading "The Other Side," referring to a side of the debate over a proposed "white only" membership rule for the League of American Wheelmen, which served recreational and utilitarian cyclists, but also governed bicycle racing in the United States. In a nutshell, what were the arguments for and against, and who was making them?

Andrew Ritchie: The LAW held an annual convention at which state delegates voted on important decisions about membership issues, racing, the condition of the roads, and the general running of the organization, which was expanding rapidly during the ‘bicycle boom' years of the mid-1890s. For several years prior to 1894, Southern members had been pressing for a ban on black membership, part of a nationwide movement towards de facto semi-legal segregation in a wide variety of social institutions, which became known as ‘Jim Crow' segregation. If blacks were allowed in, it was argued, then whites would either not join or would leave. Majortaylor_medium The issue was - what effect would black membership have on nationwide enrollment? At the 1894 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the members who wanted the black ban were again determined to propose it and force a vote through. Led by a Col. Watts of Louisville, they succeeded in carrying their motion, 127-54, with 121 votes needed to carry the motion. A simple rewriting of membership qualifications substituted the phrase "any wheelman ... of good character" with the phrase "any white wheelman." So, strictly speaking, it wasn't a black "exclusion" as stated, but a white-only "inclusion." You can find a much expanded version of this story in the chapter "Bicycle Boom and Jim Crow" in my biography of Major Taylor.

This membership rule stayed on the books until it was officially rescinded by the League of American Bicyclists in 1999, also at a convention in Louisville, where Major Taylor was posthumously awarded a League membership. I gave an address at that convention.

LT: Major Taylor was just a couple of months past his 15th birthday when this letter was published in early 1894. Were you surprised to find that he joined the debate in this way?

AR: When I first read it, I was mostly annoyed with myself for having missed it, because I was familiar with Bearings and had had access to it - in fact, I made a xerox copy of a page in the same issue. In pre-Internet days, you had to turn the actual paper pages of periodicals and magazines to find relevant articles - sometimes in foreign countries and foreign languages - so actually it was easy to miss things, so I shouldn't be hard on myself. It's an important document, especially since February 1894 was very close to the beginning of Major Taylor's serious amateur racing career, and he was more than two years away from turning professional. And here he is - writing a meaningful letter to the press! To find a significant statement concerning race relations and current LAW politics from the only 15¼-year-old Taylor (he was born in November 1878) was for me pretty extraordinary!

But there was an immediate question: Was the letter written by Taylor himself, or did somebody else do it for him? In the end, we have no way of knowing - we can only speculate. At the top of the letter, a Bearings editor writes: "The Bearings is always ready to give both sides of a story and although it is against the admission of the negro to the L.A.W., yet it is willing to give the colored man a chance to air his views in its columns. The following interesting letter from a colored cyclist of Indianapolis gives a side of the question which has not been touched on before." We may well take this editorial disclaimer at its face value: Taylor wrote the letter, Bearings published it.

The idea that Bearings might have concocted the letter is an interesting one, but not one I think which holds much water. By 1894, Taylor was already known in Indianapolis and Chicago as "the negro champion of America." What would Bearings have had to gain from "inventing" such a long and articulate letter, expressing the "separatist" sentiment within the black community so well: "We don't want to be where we are not wanted." So, was Major Taylor helped by someone else? Possible. I could see easily enough the guiding hand of his employer and coach Birdie Munger, looking over Taylor's shoulder to make a few suggestions. Don't forget that Taylor had been very well educated in an affluent white man's house, and he had already been working with Munger for some time, and was constantly around the political and cycling discussions of the moment. He had led an extremely precocious life for a black kid, and I'm not totally surprised to see that he had the urge to write the letter, and the ability to write that well. And he certainly had many people around him who could help him. But it could be that he was a better letter writer than Munger himself!

There's something about this statement - "I have ridden a wheel perhaps longer than many of your members and have always found plenty of enjoyment without an L.A.W. pin or a Bi. World [the other leading cycling publication, to which LAW members were automatically subscribed], and have never had any more desire to become one of its members than I would to have a white man join our little church, instead of the one across the street, which is for whites only" - which rings so absolutely true. And this is cocky, almost adolescent, stuff: "There is not a member of the League that desires me or any of my colored friends for a club mate, or to be one of my brothers in any fraternity, and every good sound negro who has horse sense enough to ride one of those grand machines knows that as well as I." And, then, his sarcasm is masterful. First, "It may be because I am illiterate that I have heard or read nothing from the negro ...," and then, "Negroes who wish to mix with white men are not so plentiful as you think."

Major Taylor

Illustration of a young Major Taylor

LT: Major Taylor's letter, to paraphrase, says that opposition to the "whites only" measure is just pandering in order to get blacks' votes, and that he doesn't want to be part of a white club that doesn't want black members. He says blacks and whites are content with separate churches, for example, and that the LAW should leave "politics" alone or black cyclists will form their own organization. Were there already separate black cycling groups? Were there any blacks in the LAW?

AR: Yes, the evidence in the press was that black cyclists had been forming their own cycling clubs up to 1894, and went on forming them, and challenging for acceptance into the LAW. In 1896 and 1897, the San Francisco Call had articles about the all-black Oakland Cycling Club, and Bearings, in its July 30, 1896, issue, had a piece on "Organizing a Colored League" in Washington, D.C. There were various disputes about whether a black rider should be allowed to enter an ‘open' race, with coverage in The New York Times in 1894. As our digital searching capability increases, I expect that we'll be able to pick up more traces of these black cycling clubs. The idea of a separate black governing body was in the air, and talked about, as we see here in Major Taylor's letter, but never seems to have actually happened. There are lots of mentions of ‘colored' bicycle clubs and races. By this date, Major Taylor had been winning enough races in and around Indianapolis and Chicago that he was already known as "the colored champion of America."

And then there is the now well-documented case of Kittie Knox, a black cyclist from Boston who made a test case of her paid-up membership in the LAW. The 1895 LAW convention was in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Kittie insisted on integrating herself into all the facilities, social gatherings and rides - riding a man's bicycle and wearing bloomers! It is a fascinating story very ably told by Lorenz Finison in his book Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900. Knox became a local legend.

Major Taylor

An early photograph of a young Major Taylor

LT: Plessy v. Ferguson, the court case that would bring the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling, in 1896, legitimizing racially "separate but equal" public accommodations, was already in the pipeline. What was Major Taylor's experience of racial segregation in his youth? What kinds of interactions did he have in black groups, and with white people, that might have shaped his view on the LAW proposal to draw the "color line"?

AR: Marshall Taylor's upbringing was very unusual for a black child born into rural poverty, though perhaps not so rare as we might suppose. But the story is now well-known, and told by Taylor in his autobiography. He was raised at an impressionable age, from 8 or 9 until about 12, we don't know for sure, as the "companion" to Dan Southard, a white child of his own age living in the affluent Indianapolis suburbs. Taylor's father was coachman/driver for the family, and Marshall sometimes went to work with his father. Major Taylor's daughter Sydney Taylor Brown told me vividly in an interview that "he was like a brother to him, they lived together, had lessons together and played together." The Southard family provided everything for Marshall, and he had access to everything the white boy had access to, including a bicycle. That was Taylor's foundation in cycling, but it was also a model for his experience living on both sides of the color line in a world which was becoming increasingly more - not less - segregated. He was forcefully reminded of that when he went with Dan Southard to try to enroll in physical exercise classes at the local YMCA - membership open only to whites! In his letter he's quite clear that he's not in favor of blacks becoming members of ‘white' organizations where they will never feel really welcomed, but there was no black YMCA.

Taylor's time living with the Southards also meant that he was well educated, well informed, intelligent and articulate from a young age, and capable, I feel, of having written this letter. His living like this in the white world meant that he became somewhat estranged from his own family, and certainly they from him. Post-Southard he appears to have moved quickly into the cycling world and was probably living with Munger, who was white, by about 13 or 14. Both those exposures to the white world were certainly a good introduction to the larger sports world he would later encounter as a professional cyclist - sponsors, promoters, officials, newsmen, photographers, and his rivals on the tracks of the world, all of whom were white.

Given all the experiences Taylor would have in racing and traveling the world for nearly 20 years, he appears to have shown a high degree of sophistication in living in the two worlds. In a sense he was always something of a "special case" because there were so few black athletes occupying a position of comparable international fame. But he certainly received more than his fair share of racist actions and attitudes. I think the racist cartoons are an indication of how this deeply-rooted and hateful mockery of black people was sanctioned and routinely published in the media.

Major Taylor

Cartoon from Bearings

LT: That leads to my next question. In introducing Major Taylor's letter, Bearings notes its own position "against the admission of the negro to the LAW." How did Bearings present the issue elsewhere in its pages?

AR: The fact that Bearings was prepared to publish racist cartoons, and took this stand in 1894 on the proposed ‘negro bar' in its columns, has to be pointed out and acknowledged. Another Chicago cycling paper, The Referee - The Cycle Trade Journal, on June 30, 1893, editorialized with the headline "The Negro Must Go." "Well-wishers of the negro" agreed without exception that "The negro is all right in his place. For the most part he is our servant, far below us in intelligence; and his habits and standing prevent our meeting with him in a social or fraternal way." Gov. Henry, of Virginia, told the Referee reporter, "The negro we look upon as a faithful house-dog. We like him. He is a part of our institution, but he is far below us in intelligence, in morals and in ability. Every ‘nigger' God ever made will steal." This comment was published in the paper's editorial columns. But a classier publication like Bearings did not want to alienate its readers, and on the subject of the "black exclusion" from the LAW, they seem mostly to have preferred good reporting, and following the story, which they certainly did. They had little reason to take a stand on an issue that wasn't their fight.

Later, Bearings published many objective news accounts of Major Taylor's activities. In 1897, referring specifically to Taylor, they said, "The position of the negro is a trying one, for every rider is anxious to top him, owing to his color, and the battle to beat him is waged fiercely day by day." The situation in 1897, Major Taylor's first complete season as a pro, when he was contesting the national championships, was full of complications, as Bearings at that moment reported in a long article: "The white men claim that it is not fear of Taylor's prowess and ability that brings about the present opposition, but a doubt exists if the white men are wholly honest in this. Taylor is a great rider, of that there cannot be the slightest doubt. He is also a daring rider and the first of his class to ever show championship form in the present day fast company, and there is a fear that his presence in the races may excite other colored riders to such admiration that more of his race will want to compete. One thing is certain, the meet promoters will regret his going, for he proves an excellent drawing card and his entry is eagerly sought."

What a gift to the historian to have commentary of such expressive style and detail! The editors of Bearings were influential professional journalists who were playing on the national level of cycling power politics, so they were very much in the public eye. For a number of years, Bearings had been the official organ of the LAW; every member received a copy in the mail, which gave Bearings a circulation of at least 40,000 copies a week in 1894. Its full title was The Bearings - The Cycling Authority of America. It was based in Chicago. A typical issue, with all of its ads, could run to 60 pages.

Illustration of a young Major TaylorLT: The LAW did pass the "white only" clause in 1894. Yet Major Taylor got a professional LAW racing license at the age of 18, in 1896. Was he just an exception? How did the LAW ban on blacks affect his career?

AR: The answer to this is actually fairly simple. The 1894 ruling applied to full membership in the LAW and the ‘white only' ban would be most likely to be used as a criterion of entry into amateur races in Midwestern and Southern states. In 1893, the Associated Cycling Clubs of Chicago barred black riders from entering the Pullman Road Race, one of the most prestigious national road races, which Taylor would certainly have been eligible to enter. In more liberal places, such as New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Philadelphia, black riders were not likely to be rejected, one of the principal reasons that Major Taylor moved east. But, anyway, the ruling didn't apply to professionals, many of whom were highly suspicious of LAW control of racing anyway, and much more oriented toward their business and industry sponsors. So, supported by Birdie Munger and others who recognized his incredible talent, Taylor didn't have any trouble getting his pro license in 1896. All his troubles came later, with the physical and sometimes very aggressive reactions from the white riders to his actual presence on the tracks, and especially to his effrontery directed at the white race in actually winning races! Can you imagine!

LT: So as an adult, Major Taylor challenged the white establishment of his sport and gained entry. Do you see that as a contradiction or reversal of his "separatist" view at age 15, or an evolution?

AR: Well, yes, Taylor certainly challenged the entire international establishment of the sport, and did gain entry everywhere. He couldn't be kept out as long as promoters were willing to accept his entries, and he could be sponsored by bicycle makers as a professional without being a full LAW member - he just needed his license. At first, it was perhaps easy for him to imagine that the LAW didn't matter much, that the black cyclists could and would just form their own organization. But there was no "separatist" league he could compete in. There was no upper-level "black" racing scene which he could gain entry to - he had no black rivals at his level. It was obvious from his first professional race, the six-day race in New York, that he was a world-class athlete - Munger knew that.

But his career was dogged by bureaucratic nastiness, for example in 1898, as the various professional riders' committees deviously looked for ways to make trouble for Taylor, and make life as unpleasant as possible for him - in fact, to drive him from the sport, which in effect after 1901, as he found he could earn his living in Europe and Australia, they did succeed in doing.

The tragedy of Major Taylor's career was that he had to struggle so hard to survive in the States, but he never really gained acceptance within the American sport. He stuck to competition in the U.S. through 1900, with his world championship in 1899 in Montreal being the exception. He first visited France in 1901. After 1900 he traveled the world and avoided regular competition in the States. Every time he returned, there was some new round of bureaucratic nastiness - but little recognition.

LT: Your biography of Major Taylor has many references to Bearings from this period, but this letter escaped your notice during your original research for the book in the 1980s. How did it come to your attention now?

AR: Actually, it was mentioned in an article by another cycling historian, Gary Sanderson. Thank you, Gary! As I said, Bearings was a very important cycling journal, containing so much information - so it's easy to miss things.

Questforspeed_mediumLT: Since the Major Taylor biography, your research has broadened and deepened to the history of bicycle racing in general, presented in your 2011 book Quest for Speed. Did that project refine your assessment of Major Taylor's place in history?

AR: Well, no, because the Major Taylor project really was my entrance-door into the wider history of 19th-century cycling in the United States. I didn't really know very much about the 1890s American scene until I started to try to make sense of the Major Taylor scrapbooks.

But discovering those huge stacks of American periodicals in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian was pretty amazing; it's extraordinary how much social history is contained in those cycling magazines. I am going back, now, to try to expand and deepen my knowledge of Major Taylor's career, because we now have new opportunities to explore the newspapers and periodicals digitally, and we're finding new things. This letter of Taylor's is one example.

The story of Major Taylor's life and career is going to be further refined and expanded by more detailed research, understanding the micro-history of his financial and contractual dealings within the sport, and exploring this delicate social-political racialized balancing trick that was going on all the time in Major Taylor's dealings with the white power structures and with his white opponents.

* * * * *

Andrew Ritchie is the author of King Of The Road (Wildwood House / Ten Speed Press), Major Taylor - The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer (Johns Hopkins University Press), Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World (Cycle Publishing / Van der Plas Publications), Flying Yankee - The International Cycling Career of Arthur Augustus Zimmerman (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund), The Origins of the Bicycle - Kirkpatrick Macmillan, Gavin Dalzell, Alexandre Lefebvre (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund), The Origins of Bicycle Racing in England - Technology, Entertainment, Sponsorship and Publicity (John Pinkerton Memorial Publishing Fund) and Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903 (published by the author).

You can find an earlier interview with Andrew Ritchie here.

You can find Andrew Ritchie online at andrewritchie.wordpress.com

Our thanks to Andrew Ritchie for taking part in this interview.

Our thanks also go to Lynne Tolman at the Major Taylor Association for conducting this interview. You can contact her by email to info@majortaylorassociation.org