Today, the title for the fastest African-American man to compete on a track would probably go to Olympic Gold medal sprinter Tyson Gay, who holds the American record in the 100 meter dash with a time 9.69 seconds. But more than a century ago—long before Gay was born, it was John Baxter Taylor who held that illustrious title.
Tagged by the New York Times as the “world’s greatest negro runner,” Taylor, at the age of 26, broke the color barrier in the racially segregated U.S. as the first African-American to compete for and win an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1908 U.S. national medley relay team.
Taylor died from a thyroid fever just five months after the 1908 Olympics, but his legacy will live forever.
“It is far more as the man than the athlete that John Taylor made his mark,” wrote Harry Porter, the acting president of the 1908 U.S. Olympic Team, in a letter to Taylor’s parents, according to reports.
“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.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Taylor began running track when his family moved to Philadelphia where he would attend Central High School, one of the city’s premier schools for academics and athletics. There, Taylor stood out as the only Black runner on the track team on his junior and senior years. According to reports, Taylor went on to become the best one-mile runner in all of Philadelphia.
After graduating from high school, Taylor studied at Brown Prep in Philadelphia for one year; there, he became the best prep school quarter-mile runner in the U.S., winning two major meets: the Princeton Interscholastics and the Yale Interscholastics.
He went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, where he would also continue his dominance as a runner. He won several collegiate track and field championships, including perhaps his greatest individual win in the American Athletic Union (AAU) 440-yard championship in Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 7, 1907. According to reports, it was at this event where Taylor gained his reputation as the purest of gentlemen. The following quote is from a Philadelphia Inquirer dispatch at the time of Taylor’s death in 1908:
“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.”