By Lynne Tolman of the Major Taylor Association
A pinback button promoting an 1898 bicycle race in Cambridge, Mass., billed the head-to-head competition in simple terms: “Black vs. White.” The reality for the two contestants, Major Taylor and Eddie McDuffee, was more complicated. They were onetime teammates, now rivals, always in a quest for speed.
At 19 years old, Indiana native Marshall W. “Major” Taylor, aka “the Worcester Whirlwind,” was in his second full season as a professional bike racer. The bicycle craze came amid increasing Jim Crow racial segregation, violently enforced by lynching. In 1894, the League of American Wheelmen had restricted amateur membership to white people. Nonetheless, the LAW racing board in New York had granted a professional license to Taylor, an African American.
McDuffee, 27, son of an Irish Catholic bricklayer from Lawrence, was having the best year of his career in 1898. He excelled at paced racing, tucking into the slipstream behind a “quad” or a “quint,” a four- or five-man bicycle, to pick up speed. Typically he received $1,000 if he won a race, $500 if he lost. In the fall of 1897, riding against the clock, he had set the world record for a paced mile.
The previous summer, Taylor and McDuffee had been teammates in a Boston vs. Philadelphia pursuit race. The Massachusetts squad was one of the earliest integrated teams in professional sports. Several riders — all white except Taylor — had trained together in Cambridge and tried out for the five-man team. In the competition at Charles River Park on July 21, 1897, the racers worked together efficiently to win the 5-mile chase. Taylor pulled his teammates most of the way, then dropped to the back of the formation, his energy spent, as McDuffee took the lead and brought the Boston riders past the other team in the final mile.
The 1898 event on the same track had a different tone, with its “Black vs. White” hype. Playing it up as a racial battle was a win-win for the box office. It heightened the drama for spectators, no matter which man they were rooting for or whose supremacy they wanted to see validated or smashed. The 30-mile race on June 17 drew a crowd of 13,000, according to the Boston Herald. When Taylor came onto the track, the band played “The Warmest Baby in the Bunch,” a George M. Cohan song whose lyrics are filled with demeaning racial stereotypes. For McDuffee’s entrance the musicians launched into “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a ragtime hit written by African American entertainer Ernest Hogan. The tune spawned many racist imitations, and near the end of his life the composer said he regretted it.
McDuffee won that race, but ultimately Taylor beat him into the record books. Before the summer ended, French rider Edouard Taylore shaved seconds off McDuffee’s world record for a human-paced mile, and in the fall Major Taylor lowered the record further. Barred from certain races because of his color and stymied by bureaucratic maneuvers that threatened his eligibility, Taylor was focusing on pure speed rather than direct competition.
The record fever accelerated with the arrival of the motor age. Bicyclists drafted a variety of ever-faster pacemaking machines, called motocycles, and McDuffee was an early adopter. In 1899 McDuffee and Taylor kept trading the coveted 1-mile record, each knocking seconds off the other’s time in a series of motor-paced trials. That August, fresh from a record-setting stint in Chicago, Major Taylor edged out Tom Butler, another Massachusetts rider, in a four-man race to win the 1-mile world championship in Montreal. McDuffee took the record back in October. But Major Taylor had the last word in November, back in Chicago, blazing a mile in 1 minute, 19 seconds – an average speed of 45.56 miles per hour.
McDuffee promptly announced his retirement. But he did not begrudge Major Taylor the conquest and in fact he had proved to be an ally in the pursuit of fair play. After their one and only intercity race, the Boston-area men Taylor had teamed up with became his strong rivals athletically, wrote biographer Andrew Ritchie, but they “never questioned his fundamental right to be in the sport.”