New RVA mural set to commemorate unsung Black cyclist ahead of UCI race

Posted by: brad – Aug 24, 2015


The end of September will be an exciting time for cyclists here in Virginia. The UCI Road World Championship is an annual event for people all around the world that was started in 1921. This year, Richmond has been chosen to host the international event and many parts of the city are still working hard to get ready for the big race.

While those hoping to snag a winning title are amped for the competition, the race is also bringing an opportunity for a history lesson for some. Jackson Ward-born muralist Sir James Thornhill, along with his comrades in the SJT Global Arts Initiative, have taken on the challenge to create a mural in time for the race.

The mural will feature Marshall “Major” Taylor (pictured below), the first African-American to win a cycling championship.

Taylor, an Indiana native, snagged his very first win in an amateur cycling event at 13 in 1892. Two years later he beat the world record 1 mile amateur track record while being booed for his race by locals.

Taylor was no stranger to racial discrimination, but that did not stop him from continuously winning titles and earning himself the nickname “The Black Cyclone." He was finally added to the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989, 57 years after his death.

Despite the fact that Taylor broke racial boundaries before he even hit high school, he is still not a household name but Thornhill hopes to change that. He's has made it his mission to make sure people know the impact of Taylor’s accomplishments and he's taken steps to highlight the accomplishments of other people of color who have been swept under the rug.

Thornhill and his group have worked on several historical murals throughout the downtown area of Richmond. The walls plastered with portraits of Harriet Tubman, Larry Bland, Dr. Martin Luther King and Bob Marley are all courtesy of his group.

The artist spoke of the murals throughout Richmond, and how it was important to him that the art he created spoke to the people of RVA, saying he believes creating positive art in troubled neighborhoods can have a huge important.

“If you see nothing, you think nothing,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill learned of Taylor in January of this year, and was taken with the story.

“We thought that it had to go on the wall," he said. "It kind of just spoke to me, and after reading the story- his history- and how it was all just squashed like he didn’t exist, I decided that he had to be on a wall in Richmond.”

In March, research on the subject commenced which led to the beginning of the concept art in June. Since then, the SJT Global Arts Initiative has been working hard to get the word out and raise the money to finish the mural in time.

Dawn Cherry, another artist and the project administrator, also spoke about how he was drawn to the project. “When [Thornhill] started to talk to me about this project, it was so compelling to me that I decided that I had some extra time and I wanted to be involved,” he said.

Cherry spoke about the bit of push back they received in the developing stages of the project, and how finding a location for the mural proved harder than expected. “We had a situation where we approached an individual and they felt that the content wasn’t appropriate for their building.” Cherry said.

They overcame the issues, however, and work on the mural has already begun at 2nd and Marshall street.

Both Thornhill and Cherry were so captivated by Taylor's story they felt it was necessary to share it in such a public way, and they hope it can impact how people look at cycling as a sport as well.

Thornhill commented on the underrepresentation of people of color in the world of bike racing can be painfully apparent, and how the UCI bike race wont be an exception.

But organizers here in Richmond believe our city was chosen in the hopes of influencing the poor levels of representation in the sport.

According to Paul Shanks, Director of Communications & Digital Marketing for Richmond 2015, the group organizing the city's readiness ahead of the race next month, the UCI’s governing body took steps in 2010 to help diversify the sport. Now, at least once every five years, the race is held outside of Europe in an effort to "globalize the sport."

“It was an opportunity to expose the sport to a new demographic, to a new group of folks who haven’t seen big-time bike racing before," said Shanks about the reason for selecting RVA this year. "For many… this will be their first exposure to world class cycling, and it will hopefully provide a great stage to expand the sport.”

As for Thornhill, his goal from the beginning has been to show people of color in their rightful light, and he believes his mural will give "Major" Taylor some of the recognition the groundbreaking cyclist deserves.

“Major Taylor was unsung,” said Thornhill. “His history has been pushed back. Even with this huge venue [for cyclists] no one was talking about Major Taylor. So we want to show them that he was the fastest biker that ever lived.”

Words by Taneasha White