By Femi Lewis
John Baxter Taylor was the first African-American to win an Olympic Gold Medal and the first to represent the United States at an international sporting competition. At 5’11 and 160 pounds, Taylor was a tall, lanky and swift runner. In his short yet prolific athletic career, Taylor earned forty-five cups and seventy medals.
Following Taylor’s untimely death just a few months after his Olympic wins, Harry Porter, the Acting President of the 1908 American Olympic Team described Taylor as
“[…] More as the man (than the athlete) that John Taylor made his mark. Quite unostentatious, genial, (and) kindly, the fleet-footed, far-famed athlete was beloved wherever known…As a beacon of his race, his example of achievement in athletics, scholarship and manhood will never wane, if indeed it is not destined to form with that of Booker T. Washington.”
Taylor was born on November 3, 1882, in Washington D.C. Sometime during Taylor’s childhood, the family relocated to Philadelphia. Attending Central High School, Taylor became a member of the school’s track team. During his senior year, Taylor served as the anchor runner for Central High School’s one mile-relay team at the Penn Relays. Although Central High School finished fifth in the championship race, Taylor was considered the best quarter-mile runner in Philadelphia. Taylor was the only African-American member of the track team.
Graduating from Central High School in 1902, Taylor attended Brown Preparatory School. Not only was Taylor a member of the track team, he became the star runner. While at Brown Prep, Taylor was considered the best prep school quarter-miler in the United States. During that year, Taylor won the Princeton Inter-scholastics as well as the Yale Inter-scholastics and anchored the school’s track team at the Penn Relays.
A year later, Taylor enrolled in the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and again, joined the track team. As a member of University of Pennsylvania’s varsity track team, Taylor won the 440-yard run at the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) championship and broke the intercollegiate record with a time of 49 1/5 seconds.
After taking a hiatus from school, Taylor returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1906 to study veterinary medicine and his desire to run track was reignited as well. Training under Michael Murphy, Taylor won the 440-yard race with a record of 48 4/5 seconds. The following year, Taylor was recruited by the Irish American Athletic Club and won the 440-yard race at the Amateur Athletic Union championship. In 1908, Taylor graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
The 1908 Olympics were held in London. Taylor competed in the 1600-meter medley relay, running the 400-meter leg of the race and the United States’ team won the race, making Taylor the first African-American to win a gold medal. Five months after making history as the first African-American Olympic Gold medalist, Taylor died at the age of twenty-six of typhoid pneumonia. He was buried in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia.
At Taylor’s funeral, thousands of people paid homage to the athlete and doctor. Four clergymen officiated his funeral and at least fifty carriages followed his hearse to Eden Cemetery. Following Taylor’s death, several news publications published obituaries for the gold medalist. In the Daily Pennsylvanian, the official newspaper for the University of Pennsylvania, a reporter described Taylor as one of the popular and respected students on campus, writing, “We can pay him no higher tribute—John Baxter Taylor: Pennsylvania man, athlete, and gentleman.”
The New York Times was also present at Taylor’s funeral. The news publication characterized the service as “one of the greatest tributes ever paid a colored man in this city and described Taylor as “the world’s greatest negro runner.”