Taylor was the son of Gilbert Taylor and Saphronia Kelter, who had migrated from Louisville, Kentucky with their large family to a farm in rural Indiana. Taylor's father was employed in the household of a wealthy Indianapolis family as a coachman, where Taylor was also raised and educated. At an early age, the family gave Taylor a bicycle, and he began working as an entertainer at the age of thirteen. Taylor was hired to perform cycling tricks stunts outside a bicycle shop while wearing a soldier's uniform — hence the nickname "Major."
"Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart."
Marshall W. "Major" Taylor
As an African-American, Taylor was banned from bicycle racing in Indiana once he started winning and made a reputation as "The Black Cyclone." In 1896, he moved from Indianapolis to Middletown, Connecticut, then a center of the United States bicycle industry with half a dozen factories and thirty bicycle shops, to work as a bicycle mechanic in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, owned by Birdie Munger who was to become his lifelong friend and mentor, and racer for Munger's team. His first east coast race was in a League of American Wheelmen one mile race in New Haven, where he started in last place but won.
In late 1896, Taylor entered his first professional race in Madison Square Garden, where he lapped the entire field during the half-mile race. Although he is listed in the Middletown town directory in 1896, it is not known how long he still resided there after he became a professional racer. He eventually settled in Worcester, Massachusetts (where the newspapers called him "The Worcester Whirlwind"), marrying there and having a daughter, although his career required him to spend a large amount of time traveling, in America, Australia, and Europe.
Although he was greatly celebrated abroad, particularly in France, Taylor's career was still held back by racism, particularly in the Southern states where he was not permitted to compete against Caucasians. The League of American Wheelmen for a time excluded blacks from membership. During his career he had ice water thrown at him during races and nails scattered in front of his wheels, and was often boxed in by other riders, preventing the sprints to the front of the pack at which he was so successful. In his autobiography, he reports actually being tackled on the race track by another rider, who choked him into unconsciousness but received only a $50 fine as punishment. Nevertheless, he does not dwell on such events in the book; rather it is evident that he means it to serve as an inspiration to other African-Americans trying to overcome similar treatment. Taylor retired at age 32 in 1910, saying he was tired of the racism. His advice to African-American youths wishing to emulate him was that while bicycle racing was the appropriate route to success for him, he would not recommend it in general; and that individuals must find their own best talent.
Unverified reports, such as the subtitle on the book jacket of Marlene Targ Brill's biography of Major Taylor, Taylor achieved other important international benchmarks in cycling.
This monument to Major Taylor, champion bicycle racer, was created by sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez, was unveiled at the Worcester Public Library on May 21, 2008.