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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Champion Black Cyclist Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor Could Finally Be Honored With A Congressional Medal

More than 1,000 people have signed a recently launched petition calling for Major Taylor to be honored on the national level. His South Side supporters are behind the push.

Members of the Bronzeville Trail Task Force were joined by members of the Major Taylor Trail, the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago and Taylor's great-granddaughter, Karen Donovan (seated, center) for the announcement of the task force's Major Taylor Initiative.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
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DOUGLAS — An iconic Chicago athlete might finally get his due on the national stage.

The Bronzeville Trail Task Force plans to push for world-renowned Black cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor to be honored with a postage stamp and a Congressional Medal of Honor, it recently announced. The group is also already raising money for a Major Taylor monument to be placed at the entrance of his namesake trail on the South Side.

Members of the task force were joined by Taylor’s great-granddaughter, Karen Donovan, along with representatives from local groups last week for a reception at the historic Wabash YMCA, 3763 S. Wabash Ave. The building is where the famed athlete spent his final years.

The initiative to honor Taylor is part of a larger $100 million plan to convert 2 miles of abandoned rail line into a bike and walking trail. The task force shared its progress at an open house in Bronzeville last month where the members presented a trio of options for the restoration of the Kenwood Line embankment, which would serve as an entry point for the trail.

Taylor, who was born in 1878 in Indiana, was the first Black cyclist ever to win a world championship. He spent most of his career traveling the world as he broke records and collected medals, despite efforts to ban him from competing because he was Black.

Illness and financial woes left the iconic athlete nearly destitute and living at the Wabash YMCA until his death at 53 in 1932.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Green Line tracks parallel a section of the embankment of the abandoned Kenwood CTA train tracks at 40th and State streets on Apr. 13, 2022. Plans are underway to convert the tracks into two miles of parkway for walking, biking and jogging.

Several organizations created in honor of Taylor have signaled their support for the initiative, including the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago and Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, a nonprofit supporting a 6-mile bike path on the Far South Side.

The task force has also launched a petition in hopes of building support for Taylor to be honored with a congressional medal, garnering more than 1,000 signatures.

Donovan, the first signatory, said she was proud to see so many dedicated to honoring her great-grandfather’s legacy. Though the two never met, the stories her grandmother shared about taylor have stayed with her.

One story in particular, of the time Taylor won his very first race, still makes her smile, she said.

“The bike shop where he worked had put him on a bike as some sort of gimmick. They entered him in a race, and he wound up winning. When he found out he’d won, he ran straight home to tell his mother. Didn’t even stay around to celebrate,” Donovan said.

The “Ebony Flyer” was stern but loving and believed in the power of education, said Donovan, who — like her mother and grandmother — became an educator.

Donovan said she remembers how, as a student, the only names she’d hear during Black History Month were Jesse Owens and Martin Luther King. Making sure Taylor’s story is told is more important than ever as Black history curriculum is challenged due to feigned concerns regarding critical race theory, she said.

Mark Sengstacke, Chicago Defender Charities executive director, echoed Donovan’s sentiments. The Black-owned daily was the only newspaper to cover Taylor’s death in 1932.

“He was an amazing athlete. You couple that with the struggles and the adversity he had to face simply because he was African American and the fact that many at the time didn’t know who he was. … I look at all that, and it says to me that there was an importance of having full representation in the media to cover the story all of us need to hear,” Sengstacke said.

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