Will controversy derail major honor for Major Taylor?

In 1898, Major Taylor set seven cycling world records
It has size, permanence and a contemplative atmosphere. It lends some dignity to the man and ensures that the story of Major Taylor will not be lost.

That was the attitude of the people who voted on the proposed design of a statue memorializing the life and times of cyclist Marshall W. "Major" Taylor.

Taylor, an Indiana native who lived in Worcester, Mass., overcame prejudice on and off his bike to become the second black world champion athlete in any sport (the first was bantamweight boxer George Dixon in 1891).

Taylor held seven world records in 1898, won the world one-mile bicycling championship in 1899 and was American sprint champion in 1900. He died at the age of 53 on June 21, 1932.

His story will not be lost, though, as he will be immortalized in a statue to be erected at the Worcester Public Library in Worcester.

Fund-raising for the $250,000 project has begun, with three-time Olympic medalist Edwin Moses serving as Honorary National Chairman for the Major Taylor Humanitarian Association.

Antonio Tobias "Toby" Mendez of Knoxville, Md., was selected to sculpt the statue, from among 60 applicants from all over the world.

Mendez's design for the statue features a two-sided sculpture wall 10 feet high and 13 feet, 8 inches wide. It serves as a wind break for the library entrance and anchors an outdoor plaza suited for reflection and contemplation.

One side of the wall will be inscribed with text explaining Taylor's life story, under a 5- by-10-foot bronze bas-relief sculpture of track bike racers in action. The other side will feature a larger-than-life, three-dimensional figure of Taylor, with his bicycle in high relief, in front of a velodrome portrayed in bas relief.

Pictures and slides of the proposed statue can be seen on the Web at www.majortaylorassociation.org.

"The problem with projects like this is that we put people on pedestals without explaining why," Mendez said. "A lot of memorials look like trophies and I didn't want this to happen with Major Taylor. I wanted to focus in on the man and not just his sport.

Mendez holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. His works include bronze panels at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.; a monument to Nolan Ryan at the Texas Rangers Baseball Club (1997) in Arlington, Texas; and the state of Maryland's Thurgood Marshall Memorial (1996).

Association officials said they had difficulty choosing among the five finalists for the monument.

"It was very emotional," said Lynne Tolman, spokeswoman for the Taylor Association. "Everyone has his own preferences when it comes to art."

The selection was made by the association's board of directors after a special panel associated with the local arts community picked five finalists from the 60 entries.

Major Taylor Association officials said they considered the suggestions of people who had voted on the finalists. Ed Dwight's design was the choice of residents; Mendez placed third in the polling.

There was some controversy over the selection of Mendez, who is Spanish.

In a letter to the Taylor Association, Dwight a Denver sculptor described the process for selecting the artist to memorialize the black sports hero as "white art politics at its most sophisticated."

"They had no idea about what they were doing," Dwight told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "More importantly, the statue is a memorial to a black man, but the project is being run by a group of white people who have done nothing to get help from blacks. There was no sensitivity to the black community."

Dwight, who is black, was one of five finalists.

Dwight and Mendez were finalists to build a memorial in Annapolis, Md., to former black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Maryland state officials eventually commissioned Mendez to do the work.

Dwight, who said he has contacted a lawyer to explore his legal options, told the Worcester newspaper that the selection process was "not about honoring Major Taylor, but a white man's robbery of this man's legacy."

In addition to Dwight's protestation, two lawsuits have been filed over the control of the project.

Jennifer Okere, one of those who initiated interest in building the memorial, has filed suit in Worcester Superior Court, charging that the small group of volunteers with whom she once worked has stolen her project.

Okere, a black woman who had successfully petitioned the Worcester City Council to back the project, split from the Taylor Association earlier this year.

Park Spirit of Worcester Inc., which serves as a fiscal agent to area nonprofit organizations, also has gone to court, asking a judge to resolve the dispute over the money the organization holds for the project.

A total of $7,600 has been raised, with pledges of over $37,000.

Lynne Tolman, a spokeswoman for the Taylor Association and one of those being sued, said she would welcome the Park Spirit action.

"That will enable a neutral third party to judge where this money belongs," Tolman said.

As for the Okere suit, Tolman told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette: "It's unfortunate that anyone would be trying to discredit an effort to honor a forgotten hero. Anyone can throw mud on the wall and hope that some of it will stick."

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