Salute to a Penn Relays trailblazer of Olympic stature

The Penn Relays participants who have won Olympic gold medals—there are 206 of them—include some of track and field’s household names: Carl Lewis. Jesse Owens. Jim Thorpe. Edwin Moses. Gail Devers.

Were it not for a life cut short in its prime, the name of John Baxter Taylor (V’08) would be equally well known.

During his collegiate years at Penn, Taylor set an Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America record in the quarter-mile in 1904 and broke it three years later. At the 1907 Amateur Athletic Union championships in Norfolk, Va., Taylor won the quarter-mile without fighting back after being deliberately fouled, a performance that earned him the accolades of the all-white Southern audience.

In 1908, Taylor was a member of the United States team that ran in the first-ever Olympic relay race, a sprint medley. The team, which included Taylor’s Brown Prep classmate Mel Sheppard, won the race, making Taylor the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games as well as the first to represent the United States in an international sports competition (prior Olympic participants wore the uniforms of their track clubs rather than national colors).

Taylor, who graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High School 100 years ago, blazed a trail for African-Americans that Owens and many others would follow, and he began it at the Penn Relays.

In his senior year at Central, Taylor ran the anchor leg for the school’s mile relay team at the Penn Relays. Although his team finished fifth, Taylor went on to become the best quarter-mile runner in the city.

Taylor’s career came to an abrupt end when he died of typhoid pneumonia on Dec. 2, 1908, at age 26. The New York Times, which called him “the world’s greatest negro runner” in its report on the funeral, noted that several thousand people attended the service, including many top U.S. track officials, coaches and athletes. “It was one of the greatest tributes ever paid a colored man in this city,” the paper reported.

Penn Relays Director Dave Johnson, who wrote the history of Taylor from which this story is derived, first discovered Taylor in the 1970s while researching a list of Olympic gold medalists who ran in the Relays. In 1984, he wrote an article on Taylor and Sheppard for the Penn Relays program. And to mark the centennial of Taylor’s Central High graduation, Johnson returned to the subject.

“I worked with Central staff and offered assistance to students interested in researching him,” he said. “I didn’t sink that hook well enough into the students, but I did sink it into myself.” The result was the story of Taylor’s life and career that now resides on the Ivy League Web site, www.ivyleaguesports.com.

Because Taylor’s life ended so soon, Johnson said, writing the history was a little harder than it might have been. “He left little in the way of a paper trail,” he said. But material in the public record more than made up for the lack of personal papers.

Taylor is buried in Eden Cemetery in Darby; Drexel University’s main quadrangle now occupies the site of Taylor’s Woodland Avenue home. To perpetuate his memory, the Ivy League has established the John Baxter Taylor Trophy, which will be given annually to the Ivy men’s heptagonal team champion.

—Sandy Smith

Originally published on April 11, 2002