Interview with Andrew Ritchie By Lynne Tolman – firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Ritchie, the author of Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, recently came across a letter from African-American cyclist, Major Taylor, published in Bearings magazine on Feb. 9, 1894. Bearings, based in Chicago, was one of the most important and widely circulated weekly cycling magazines in the mid-1890s period. Its full title was The Bearings – The Cycling Authority of America. A typical issue, with all of its advertisements, could run to 60 pages. We are publishing the full text of the letter here and – in an email interview with Lynne Tolman, President of the Major Taylor Association – Andrew Ritchie discusses what the letter tells him about the very early career of the future world champion.
The earliest image of Taylor in the press, age about 16, published in an unidentified newspaper in 1895.
Text of letter from Major Taylor
The Other Side
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: Editor The Bearings: I am a cyclist; further, I am a negro. I have hesitated a long time, but now I think it high time for some one of my color to say a few words in regard to the great (?) question which is causing so much controversy between the different sections of the L.A.W.
It may be because I am illiterate that I have heard or read nothing from the negro, but to my knowledge there has been no argument between any of them and the politicians, who are using them as part of their “stock in trade,” to further their interests as great leaders or party bosses. However strong their argument may seem, I for one can only think that it’s not the “coon” they want, neither is it their dollar – but their big black vote is the coveted prize.
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. We are gaining in numbers every year, and unless this great League looks to its affairs and leaves politics alone to a greater extent, the near future will see a colored man’s organization in the field that will bring about a heap more in the way of the good cause than the L.A.W. ever has.
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, 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. Give us your good will and let us think of our own troubles. If our vote is worth so much, it will be given freely to any good cause, and it can grow much faster if cultivated by our own party.
Negroes who wish to mix with white men are not so plentiful as you think. This great United States government has elevated us, given us education and strength to act for ourselves – for which we are very grateful – but we are still a race as different from others as God first made us.
As cyclists we are still young, but as pleasure seekers we are old. Sociability is at least one half of a negro’s life and we know that we can not derive a portion of our existence in the social circles of the white race. We want nothing from from south, north, east, or west but that which we are entitled to, and that is certainly not membership to any white man’s league of wheelmen.
I trust that you will find space in your valuable paper for this letter, that it may be an opening shot in the way of “putting up,” instead of “down,” the “son of Ham,” as he grows interested in cycling. Hoping to hear from the colored cyclists as a body in the near future, I still remain a true lover of what is right for both, yes for all, classes.
Yours truly, Major Taylor (colored cyclist)
Indianapolis, Ind., Jan 30
Lynne Tolman: The letter was published under the heading “The Other Side,” [i.e.,of the question] referring to 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 assembled and voted to make 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 nation-wide 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. 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 would again determined to propose it and force a vote through. Led by a Col. Watts, of Louisville, they succeeded in carrying their motion [by 127 ‘yes’ votes to 54 ‘no’ votes, with 121 votes needed to carry the motion]. A simple rewriting of membership qualifications substituted the phrase “any wheelman….of good character” may become a member with “…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”, of my biography]
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, Kentucky, where Major Taylor was posthumously awarded a League membership. I gave an address at that Convention, and an article was published in BicycleUSA, Sept/Oct. 1999 (see below).
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 Feb. 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 Nov. 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 he helped by someone else? Possible. I see easily enough the guiding hand of 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 the 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 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.”
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, some black members had already joined, and were joining and also 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 [see: San Francisco Call, 12 July 1896 and 20 April 1897, the case of the all-black Oakland Cycling Club; and Bearings, 30 July 1896, “Organizing a Colored League” in Washington, DC]. There were various disputes about whether a black rider should be allowed to enter an ‘open’ race [see: New York Times, 24 May, 16 June and 14 July 1894]. More research needs to be done. 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 bloomers! It is a fascinating story very ably told by Lorenz Finison in his book Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 [Univ. Mass. Press, 2014]. Knox became a local legend.
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 [8/9 – 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. Sydney Taylor Brown tells 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 his own family became somewhat estranged from him, and certainly they from him. Post-Southard, he appears to have moved quickly into the cycling world and was probably living with Munger 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 we are including here are an indication of how this deeply-rooted and hateful mockery of black people was sanctioned and routinely published in the media. Which leads to the next question and answer……….
LT: 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 30 June 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 its editorial columns. But a classier newspaper 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, they said – “The position of the negro [i.e., MT specifically] 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.” [Bearings, Sept. 16, 1897]. The situation in 1897, MT’s first complete season as a pro, when he was contesting the national championships, was full of complications, as Bearings at that moment reports 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 wholely 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.” [Bearings, 14 Oct. 1897]
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.
LT: 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 Mid-western 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 states, 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 towards 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. licence 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 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 gained entry to – he had no black rivals at his level. It was obvious from his first professional race [the New York Six Day] 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. After 1892-1900 [he turned pro. 1896; visited France first in 1901], he traveled the world and avoided regular competition in the States. Every time 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. 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 above, Bearings was a very important cycling journal, containing so much information – so it’s easy to miss things.
LT: 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 two new biographies of Taylor – the Kerbers and Balf – don’t add very much from a historical perspective to the essential shape of the chronological biography which I laid out in my book. I have issues with both of these books, mostly because of their tendency to over-fictionalize Taylor’s life, by which I mean they introduce too much speculation, and have Taylor engaging in conversations and thoughts for which there is no evidence. 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. Inventing details of his life doesn’t help.
Text of Ephraham Jones’ Prediction cartoon
Dar’s a powerful agitation in the culled cycle club,
Yo’ ken heah de trouble brewin’ f’m NewAwlns [New Orleans?] to de Hub;
Dar’s a tempest comin’, honey, an’ as sho’ as yo’s a coon,
Dar’s gwine to be some carvin’ done an’t can’t be done too soon.
De white trash tinks dey run the league but, say, yo’ heah me shout?
Dars gwine to be some carvin’
Ef Dey Don’t Look Out!
Dar wuz a gen’l meetin’ at de club house Sat’day night,
An res’lutions passed de board ‘bout ‘scludin’ dat word ‘white’,
De ‘nanimous declaration ‘gin de ‘mendment wuz so strong
Dat dey had to frow de winders up fo’ we could git along.
Dars trouble comin’ an’ I knows jes’ what I’m talkin’ ‘bout;
Fur dar’s gwine to be some carvin’
Ef Dey Don’t Look Out!
De culled population ain’t a talkin’ wif it’s mouf,
Wen ‘t says ‘twont stan’ no foolin’ f’m de gem’men in de Souf;
Dar is heaps ob ‘spect’ble pussons buyin’ razahs ebery day,
An wat’s a gwine to happen – well I can’t persuckly say;
But I tells yo’, honey, yo’ be kind of ‘tickle [???] wats you ‘bout,
Cose dars gwine to be some carvin’
Ef Dey Don’t Look Out!
For further reading on the subject, see:
– Andrew Ritchie, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer [Johns Hopkins U.P., 1988].
– Andrew Ritchie, “The League of American Wheelmen, Major Taylor and the ‘Color Question’ in the United States in the 1890s”, in J.A. Mangan & Andrew Ritchie, Ethnicity, Sport, Identity – Struggles for Status [Sport in the Global Society series, Frank Cass, 2004].
– Andrew Ritchie, “Major Taylor and the League of American Wheelmen’s ‘Color Barrier’, Bicycle USA, Sept/Oct. 1999 – full text of Resolution.
– The Bearings – The Cycling Authority of America, 1894: various issues report the debate around the Louisville LAW Convention: 9 Feb., 23 Feb., 9 March, 30 March, 6 April 1894. There is an online version of Bearings at: http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/bearings91894cycl
– Lorenz Finison, Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 [Univ. Mass. Press, 2014].