by W.D. Ehrhart
Back in 1970, after the Ohio National Guard murdered four college students at Kent State University, I set out to understand what had happened to me and my country in Vietnam. In the process, I stumbled upon the history of my own country. More than a half a century later, I’m still learning.
I recently wrote an essay called “Unsung & Oversung Heroes” occasioned by a biography of Elizabeth Jennings titled America’s First Freedom Rider, in which I discussed significant Americans that history has largely forgotten or never recognized in the first place.
And the very next book I happened to read, The World’s Fastest Man, introduced me to yet another American I’d never heard of: Marshall Walker “Major” Taylor, the first African American ever to become a world champion in any sport, in his case bicycle racing, which was a wildly popular sport in the last decade of the 19th century.
Racing in Europe and Australia, Taylor defeated the national champions of England, Wales, France, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium. Even more amazing, he actually won the U.S. Championship in spite of being barred—on account of being Black—from many of the races in which points were counted toward that championship. In other races, white cyclists ganged up to box Taylor in or even cause him to crash.
Another new hero of mine is Louis de Franklin “Birdie” Munger, the former champion bicycle racer who recognized Taylor’s talent when Taylor was still a teenager, vowed to train Taylor to become “the world’s fastest man,” and made that ambition a reality. Munger, who remained a lifelong friend and supporter of Taylor, was white.
But with the rise of automobiles and auto racing, bike racing was relegated to the back pages of the sporting news, and with the rise of Jim Crow America in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, Taylor was all but forgotten. Toward the end of his life, he wrote, “Throughout life’s great race I always gave the best that was in me. Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart.” He died alone and in poverty at the age of 53.
Speaking of Plessy v. Ferguson, I learned recently that the fateful decision legalizing segregation was not unanimous. One Justice, John Marshall Harlan, dissented, saying, “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country, [but] in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. Our Constitution is color-blind[.]” Harlan was a white man, of course. Imagine the courage his dissent took.
Here are some other fun little tidbits of American history I’ll bet you’ve never encountered. Ever heard of the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment? Made up of volunteers from northern Alabama, they spent the entire Civil War as part of the Union army, playing a key role in General William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and his subsequent “March to the Sea.”
Though not particularly abolitionist, they came from a region that had no slaves, nor any fondness for the rich southern Alabama aristocratic planters, and didn’t want to secede from the Union. Indeed, their core homeland, Winston County, tried to secede from Alabama, calling itself the “Free State of Winston,” and had to be militarily occupied by Alabama secessionist soldiers throughout the war.
And how many of you can name the first African American regiment in the Union army? If you say it was the 54th Massachusetts, you will be wrong. It was actually the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Colored Volunteers. Beginning in the late summer of 1862, freed slaves from the Union-occupied Sea Islands and other runaway slaves from South Carolina and Florida asked to be allowed to fight.
Union General Rufus Saxton thought that was a good idea, equipped and armed them, and had them organized and trained. Their first regimental commander was Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. As an editor of The Atlantic, alas, he holds the distinction of having declined to publish both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But he was otherwise an extraordinary man who championed equal rights for both women and African Americans.
Higginson himself is not really “unsung,” since he is certainly well-known, at least in abolitionist and literary circles, though you may not know about his Civil War service. And in recent years, the former slave Bass Reeves, who spent decades as a dedicated U.S. Deputy Marshal in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, is finally beginning to receive some long-overdue recognition.
Meanwhile, at the age of 75, I’m still learning about American history. And these days, confronted by spineless politicians who continue to support an ignorant criminal grifter, and so many of our fellow citizens who misremember the January 6th Insurrection as a largely peaceful exercise in the Constitution right of free speech, I’m fervently hoping that the rest of us might rise to the occasion and yet become our very own unsung heroes.
W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.