John Baxter Taylor
In 1908, he became the first African-American to claim an Olympic gold medal. But just four months later, the life of Penn's John Baxter Taylor came to a sudden end.
John Baxter Taylor graduated from Philadelphia's Central High School 100 years ago, in 1902. In the next six years, he rose to prominence as one of the best track athletes in the world, and became the first African-American to represent the United States in international competition in any sport. For most people, however, Taylor's story is unknown, long forgotten as being from a time too distant to care about.
Born in Washington, D.C., on November 3rd, 1882, Taylor was the son of a respected businessman. The family moved to Philadelphia before the decade was out, and John eventually attended the city's premier public school.
Central High was one of the leading public academic high schools in the country, as well as one of the track and field powerhouses on the east coast at the turn of the century. Taylor fit right in -- sort of: a black face in a sea of white, Taylor was a rarity wherever he ran. There were few African-Americans as role models in track and field, and none at the level he was to attain. In each of the team photos from Taylor's four varsity years at the University of Pennsylvania, he was the only African-American.
On the track, Taylor was the star of the Central team. He began running during his junior year, and was the anchor runner for Central's one-mile relay team at the Penn Relays his senior year. The team finished fifth in the championship race that year, and Taylor went on to be the best quarter-miler in the city.
Following his graduation from Central, Taylor spent one year at Brown Prep, also located in Philadelphia. At another strong institution for both academics and track, Taylor was immediately the star of a great team, becoming the best prep school quarter-miler in the entire country. He won two of the most important meets of the year, the Princeton Interscholastics and the Yale Interscholastics, the latter in 50 3/5 seconds, the fastest high school or prep school time in the nation that year. He also anchored the Brown Prep team to the prep school championship at the Penn Relays that year, the highlight of the relay team's undefeated season.
Taylor entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1903 in the Wharton School of Finance. As a freshman, he was an instant success, winning the IC4A (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America) championship in the quarter-mile with a meet record of 49 1/5. The meet was notable because it was held at Penn's Franklin Field, marking the first time it had been held outside of New York.
Taylor did not compete in the Olympic Games in 1904, which were held in St. Louis, Mo., and which turned out to be little more than the American club championships. In the preceding two Olympics, as in 1904, the competitors were entered individually or by their clubs or colleges, and wore their club or college uniforms. They did not represent their home countries, nor did they wear national team uniforms. The only non-American competitors that year were from Canada.
Of particular significance among the competitors was George Poage, a University of Wisconsin athlete representing the Milwaukee Track Club. Poage became the first African-American athlete to compete in the Olympics, and the first to win an Olympic medal, claiming the bronze medal in both the 200-meter and 400-meter hurdles. Notably for Taylor, the winning time in the 400 meters, won by future Dartmouth Coach Harry Hillman, was the same as Taylor's at the IC4A, 49 1/5, for the nearly three yards longer (440 yards).
A glowing example of the esteem in which Taylor was held by the black community in Philadelphia came in the spring of his sophomore year. A group of prominent African-Americans in Philadelphia created the Sigma Pi Phi Boule in May 1903 as a soon-to-be national fraternity for professional African-Americans. At the end of the first year, and for the only time, the fraternity admitted three undergraduates, including Taylor.
Taylor had academic difficulties in 1905 and did not run track. At the end of the spring term he withdrew from Wharton, but returned to campus that fall in the School of Veterinary Medicine. The 1906 season found a new coach at Penn, Mike Murphy, who had served an earlier term at the school and was widely regarded as one of the outstanding coaches in the world. By now, Taylor, tall and lanky at 5-feet-11-inches and 160 pounds, was preparing to take on the world.
The 1907 season was to be Taylor's best. He was one of several stars on the Penn team, which won the IC4A championship with just six athletes scoring all 33 points (five points for first). Held at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the 1907 IC4A championship was one of the greatest track meets of all time. In this 32nd staging of the best of all college championship meets, records were set in seven of the 13 events.
Running with his impressively long stride of eight-and-a-half feet, Taylor won the 440 yards with yet another meet record; his time of 48 4/5 broke his own record from 1904. The star of the day, however, was teammate Guy Haskins, who became only second runner (following Princeton's John Cregan in 1898) to win both the mile and the half mile in the same year at the IC4A. He set a meet record in the mile, while another teammate, Tom Moffitt, set a meet record in the high jump.
Writing in the History of Athletics at the University of Pennsylvania, Edward Bushnell said of Taylor's 1907 championship, "Taylor ran the best race of his career in the quarter mile, and although obliged to run yards further than his opponents, due to drawing a bad position and being jostled, he came away in characteristic fashion in the last 100 yards, and won by three yards in 48 4/5 seconds." It had been Taylor's custom, and remained so, to let his opponents go to the front in the early stages and reel them in during the homestretch run.
Taylor was undeniably the outstanding quarter-miler in the world in 1907. He also won the AAU 440-yard championship in Norfolk, Va., on September 7th. These national championships were held in conjunction with the Jamestown Exposition, the tricentenary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony, and it was here that Taylor's reputation as a gentleman was given its greatest boost. The following account is from the Philadelphia Inquirer's story written at the time of Taylor's death:
"While running the race Taylor was deliberately fouled by one of the contestants, but he refused to fight back and after winning the race was so loudly applauded that hundreds of Southern gentlemen rushed up and shook him by the hand, an almost unheard-of thing for a white man in the South."
During his senior year in 1908, Taylor was bothered by a hernia, of which his doctors advised him to be extremely careful. Nonetheless, at the Penn Relays, Taylor anchored Penn to the college one-mile relay championship, as the team ran 3:23 4/5, and in the IC4A championships Taylor won his third quarter-mile crown, becoming only the third runner to win three such titles in the 33-year history of the IC4A.
Taylor's winning time was slow, only 52 1/5, but it was run during a downpour, which marred most of the day's events. He graduated from Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine that year.
At the Eastern Olympic Trials, Taylor won the 400 meters in 49 4/5, running his standard come-from-behind race. Forced to run wide on the turn, Taylor caught the leader with only 20 yards to go. Selected to run in the Olympic Games, the second international event ever for which a team had been chosen to represent the United States rather than a club or college, Taylor thus became the first African-American to represent his country in international competition and wear the American team uniform.
The Olympics were held at Shepherd's Bush, in London, England. The English climate bothered Taylor constantly, and he was never able to reach his best condition. But his conditioning was of little consequence as he was about to compete in one of the most unusual and controversial finals in Olympic history.
Four men reached the final of the 400 meters: Americans Taylor, John Carpenter of Cornell and William Robbins, and Englishman Wyndham Halswelle, who was the favorite, in part because Taylor was not at his level of a year earlier. Carpenter led into the homestretch, then bore from the pole to the outside of the track, obstructing Halswelle as the Englishman tried to pass. Officials, having been alerted to such a possibility, broke the finish tape in advance of the runners, and waved off the contestants, immediately declaring it "no race."
Taylor, still trailing the field as he entered the homestretch, was pulled from the track when the officials nullifed the race. Friends thought Taylor was employing his normal tactics and might have won, but that seems unlikely from other reports of his health. Taylor himself, ever modest, said after the race that he was fairly beaten. But in a show of support for the American team, Taylor and Robbins, who finished third in the race, refused to contest the next day's re-run, and Halswelle won in a walk-over as the only contestant in the race.
But Taylor's Games had not ended. Later that day, Taylor ran 49 4/5 for the 400-meter third leg of the first relay race ever contested in the Olympics, a sprint medley. Significantly, while Carpenter led the Americans at the finish of the disputed 400-meter race, Taylor was selected to run that leg on the relay. The 200-meter legs were run by Penn teammate Nate Cartmell, the IC4A sprint champion in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes that year, and Billy Hamilton from the Univeristy of Louisville. The anchor 800-meter leg was run by the winner of both the 800 meters and the 1500 meters, Mel Sheppard, who had attended Brown Prep with Taylor and had since become the world record holder in the 800 meters. Sheppard remains the last American to win the Olympic gold medal in the 1500 meters.
With the American victory in the relay, Taylor became the first African-American ever to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. He was America's most prominent black athlete. Tragically, a little more than four months later, his sudden death at the age of 26 would be front-page news.
While many historical pieces on the emergence of the African-American athlete begin with legendary boxer Jack Johnson, it is significant that Johnson would not claim the world heavyweight title until 24 days after the unexpected death of John Baxter Taylor.
Taylor died of typhoid pneumonia on Wednesday, December 2, 1908, at his home on 3223 Woodland Avenue, in what is now the heart of the Drexel University campus and only three blocks from Franklin Field. The next morning, the notice of his death was the featured story in the Philadelphia Inquirer sports section. The headline, above a large photograph of him, read "Red and Blue Athlete Runs His Last Race. John Baxter Taylor, the Former Colored Champion Quarter Mile Runner of the Pennsylvania Track Team, Dies After Severe Attack of Illness."
As the Inquirer report said, "Taylor was extremely popular with all of the students." Mike Murphy, who had coached several world record holders and had been Taylor's coach for the last three years, regarded Taylor as one of the best men he ever trained.
The University's Daily Pennsylvanian was extensive in its coverage of the mourning on campus for one of the school's most respected and beloved students. In an editorial, the Daily Pennsylvanian summarized by saying, "We can pay him no higher tribute -- John Baxter Taylor: Pennsylvania man, athlete and gentleman."
The New York Times, in its report on the funeral, called Taylor "the world's greatest negro runner." It went on to list many of the great American track athletes, coaches, and officials who came to Philadelphia for his memorial, and wrote: "Several thousand persons viewed the remains and after the services at the house in which four clergymen [from as far away as Boston] officiated, fifty carriages followed the hearse to Eden Cemetery [some four miles away]. It was one of the greatest tributes ever paid a colored man in this city."
Cornell alumnus Harry Porter, the Acting President of the 1908 American Olympic Team and the gold medalist in the high jump, wrote a glowing tribute in a letter to Taylor's parents. In it, he said, "It is far more as the man [than as an athlete] that John Taylor made his mark. Quite unostentatious, genial, kindly, the fleet-footed, far-famed [Penn] athlete was beloved wherever known ... As a beacon light 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."
— David Johnson