Sports Hero's Residency
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
One hundred years ago, most Worcester folks were in a festive mood as the new century got under way. But people in the Columbus Park neighborhood were not all sharing in the festive spirit.
Columbus Park was a new development of neat, mostly single-family homes, made possible by the electric street car line to Webster Square. It was an upscale neighborhood, a cut above the three-decker level and it was attracting members of Worcester's new middle class.
But in January 1900 it was abuzz with disturbing rumors.
A headline in the Telegram told the story: COLUMBUS PARK MUCH TROUBLED All Because Major Taylor Becomes Its Neighbor
"There must be Democrats out at Columbus Park," the story began. "They are making a lot of fuss because a good Republican is to be one of the neighbors."
The "good Republican," the Telegram mentioned was none other than Marshall "Major" Taylor, world champion bicycle racer.
Major Taylor may have been a Republican, but that was not the problem. The problem was his skin color. He was black, the first world-renowned black sports celebrity in America -- "the ebony cyclone" as the Telegram put it.
Worcester, in general, took pride in the fact that the great cyclist lived here while winning bike races all over the country. But that didn't cut much ice with those Columbus Park people who foresaw a drop in the value of their homes.
Then followed a bizarre episode of finger-pointing and recrimination.
Charles A. King, the developer and owner of 25 house lots in the new development, blamed it all on Cornelius Maher & Son, real estate brokers. He had sold the lot on Hobson Avenue, he said, under false pretenses.
He claimed Mr. Maher had never told him who the buyer was, except that he was "M.C. Taylor." That apparently did not ring any bells. Mr. King later said that he did not follow sports.
"One of the first questions I asked Mr. Maher was, 'Is he a Yankee?' " said the aggrieved Mr. King. "He said he was and that he was all right." (Which makes one wonder how someone with an Irish or Italian name would have fared).
Mr. King said that he repeatedly asked to meet the buyer, but that Mr. Maher said that Mr. Taylor was an active businessman who traveled a lot and was hard to pin down.
According to Mr. King's story, he did meet a "colored man" on the day of the sale, but thought he was a workman or possibly a coachman for the Mahers. Poor communication, obviously.
It was not until after he had accepted the check (for $2,850) and
signed the deed that Mr. King learned the truth.
A proposal was made to buy the house back from Major Taylor.
But Major Taylor turned down the offer (for $4,850) and moved into his new Hobson Avenue house in short order. He was anxious to get a proper home for his sister, ailing with tuberculosis.
The story hit the front pages in both Worcester and Boston. The Telegram treated it as something of a joke, but the Daily Spy was more judgmental. Fifty years before, the Spy and Worcester had been in the forefront of the fight against slavery and for civil rights.
The Spy's editor was shocked by the petty bigotry of 1900. "Worcester is not the South," proclaimed an editorial, "it was the soil of Massachusetts that was first watered with the blood of the patriots of the Revolution because they protested against tyranny and stood out for equal rights and human liberty. The color line should not be drawn as straight as it appears to be drawn here.
"Major Taylor is a young man, and so far as reports from those who know him best, of irreproachable character."
The Boston Post also weighed in, giving Worcester a bit of a needle:
"The dusky whirlwind, as he is known on the circuit, is one of Worcester's four hundred, as far as owning and occupying his own home goes, but the other three hundred and ninety-nine are making a tremendous fuss over having him as a neighbor, and all because of his color."
The fuss all blew over in short order, and Columbus Park settled down to living alongside one of the city's most eminent residents. Property values did not plunge.
In all probability, the neighborhood, or at least some members of it, took pride in their new neighbor. He was quiet, well-behaved, a devout member of John Street Baptist Church, and a gentleman through and through.
In the following year, he made a triumphal tour of Europe, where he raced against the Continent's best riders, coming away with 42 firsts, 11 seconds, three thirds and one fourth prize.
Major Taylor was more or less forgotten for years, but now an effort is under way to erect a monument to him in this, his adopted home city. Models for the proposed statue have been shown at the Worcester Public Library.
It will be a well deserved tribute. After all, along with Bob Cousy, another non-native, Major Taylor stands at the pinnacle of the Worcester sports pantheon.
And he did it while fighting prejudice every step of the way. Including at Columbus Park.
Albert B. Southwick of Leicester, Mass., is the retired chief editorial writer for the Telegram & Gazette.