First African American Olympic gold medalist was a Penn grad

John Baxter Taylor Jr. of Philadelphia, a superstar on Penn’s track & field team in the early 1900s, won gold at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

John Baxter Taylor, left, runs in a race during the 1908 Olympics.
John Baxter Taylor Jr. races in the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. (Image: International Olympic Committee)

John Baxter Taylor Jr. was like greased lightning, the way he cold dashed around the track in the early 20th century, smoking all comers. Often, he would toy with his opponents and let them forge ahead in front of him—and then turn on the jets down the home stretch and breeze right past them to victory.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Philadelphia, Taylor graduated from Central High School and Brown Preparatory School. He enrolled in the Wharton School in the fall of 1903 and quickly became the collegiate king of the quarter-mile (440 yards).

John Baxter Taylor wearing a suit and tie during this time at Penn.
John Baxter Taylor (1882-1908), College 1907 n.g., V.M.D. 1908, portrait photograph. (Image: University Archives and Records Center)

On May 28, 1904, at the 29th annual Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) Championships at Franklin Field, he set a new interscholastic world record in the quarter-mile. His time of 49.2 seconds vanquished the previous record, held by Maxie Long of Columbia, by a fifth of a second.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, who dubbed Taylor the “colored wonder,” called it a “splendid victory, gloriously achieved.”

“It is hard to say how fast Taylor could have run the quarter mile Saturday,” the paper reported in its May 30, 1904, edition. “If he had been pushed at the finish, it is a cinch that he would have clipped another fifth of a second off the figures. He trailed along easily with the field, running about sixth until the turn was reached; then he began to let himself out. With every bound he moved up one position until, before the turn was made, he was in the lead. A few strides more gave him the pole, and then he romped home, as they say of horse races.”

Taylor was a member of Penn’s track & field teams in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1907, and 1908. Guided by famed trainer and coach Mike Murphy, he helped the Red & Blue return to track & field glory, including a first-place finish for the Quakers at the 32nd annual IC4A Championships on June 1, 1907, at Harvard Stadium. Taylor was the underdog in the quarter-mile run and was expected to lose to Rogers of Cornell, but won the race easily with a time of 48.8 seconds, which broke his own interscholastic world record.

A newspaper show the front page of the June 2, 1907, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The June 2, 1907, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Fueled by his fleet-footed feats, Taylor qualified for 1908 Summer Olympics, which were held in London. He competed in the 400-meter run and a new event called the medley relay or Olympic relay.

Although not in the best of shape and suffering from a hernia, Taylor was the favorite in the 400m. The race ended in controversy.

He won the fourth heat of the first round by 12 yards, flying by R. Penna of Italy and S. Laaftman of Sweden. In the third heat of the second round, he outperformed H.P. Ramey of the United States, E.H. Ryle of the United Kingdom, and G.W. Malfait of France. Malfait led the race for the first 300 yards before Taylor bolted by him, as was his wont, and won the race by five yards.

Penn’s track & field team in 1904-1905, group photograph
Penn’s track & field team in 1904-1905, group photograph. (Image: University Archives and Records Center) 

The 400m final featured Taylor, fellow Americans J. C. Carpenter and W. C. Robbins, and Wyndham Halswelle of the United Kingdom. Thirty yards into the race, Carpenter was in the lead, followed by Robbins, Halswelle, and Taylor. Swinging into the straight, Halswelle began to gain on Carpenter and Robbins. Officials accused Carpenter of willfully obstructing Halswelle, called a foul, and stopped the race.

Carpenter was disqualified and the race was to be rerun, but the outraged Americans refused to participate. Halswelle ran the final alone and was declared the winner. Taylor was in last place when the foul occurred, but many of his friends believed he was positioning himself for yet another come-from-behind victory.

The Olympic medley, the forerunner to the 4x400m relay, took place on July 25, 1908. The 1,600-meter race consisted of two 200 meters, a 400 meter, and an 800 meter. Taylor, running with teammates William Hamilton, Nathanial Cartmell (a Penn alum), and Melvin Sheppard, handled the 400-meter portion. Hamilton and Cartmell each ran a 200m and Sheppard ran the 800m.

In heat three of the first round, the Americans defeated Great Britain and Canada. The final saw the U.S. face off against Germany and Hungary.

Hamilton, running at the top of his form, finished his 200m with a six-yard lead, which Cartmell extended to eight yards. Taylor, whose “remarkable stride widened the gap very considerably, especially in the last hundred yards,” finished his 400m with a 15-yard lead. Sheppard, “looking not quite as fit as a few days previously”—won the 800m by 25 yards and the U.S. placed first with a time of 3:29.66. Taylor became the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal.

The Olympic medal prize for the 1908 Games in London.
The Olympic medal prize for the 1908 Games in London. (Image: Official Olympic Program)

Taylor had graduated from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine before leaving for the London Olympics (he transferred from Wharton to Penn Vet in 1905) and planned to open a veterinary practice when he returned stateside.

Tragically, he would not live through the year.

He died of typhoid pneumonia in his home at 3223 Woodland Ave. on Dec. 2, 1908. He was 26 years old.

“The death of Taylor is keenly felt by all the students at the University, and especially by Mike Murphy, the veteran trainer, who has trained Taylor for the last three years,” reads his obituary in the Dec. 3, 1908, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Taylor was extremely popular with all of the students and was known throughout the country by a host of admirers, who had known him by his remarkable reputation as a runner.

“Mike Murphy was very much cut up over the death of Taylor, who, he says, was one of the best men personally he ever trained. He was a hard worker and always willing, and was a great favorite with all his teammates.”

Each year, at the Outdoor Heptagonal Championships, the Ivy League awards the men’s team champion with the John Baxter Taylor Trophy, which is named in his honor.

Taylor runs the 440 yards at the Olympics.
Image: University Archives and Records Center