Golden life of forgotten black star

Olympian John Taylor is the subject of a novel.

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Philly native John Taylor, a track standout at Central and Penn, died at age 26.

Just a few blocks from the 13-year-old Franklin Field, where the young black man with the long stride had become one of Philadelphia's best-known athletes, a great crowd gathered outside his parents' house at 3323 Woodland Ave.

Later on that chilled December day in 1908, a long procession of horse-drawn carriages and a few motor cars headed west to Collingdale's Eden Cemetery, where John Baxter Taylor was mourned thoroughly, eulogized grandly, and buried at 26.

As the 117th Penn Relays are set to begin in earnest on Thursday, the story of Taylor, one of that event's earliest heroes, has been obscured by time. Though the annual competition is dominated now by black athletes from the United States, Jamaica, and elsewhere, this proud pioneer from Philadelphia is recalled only by the most ardent of the relay carnival's devotees.

Yet from a world where black citizens were pushed into the shadows, Taylor burst into bright focus. A graduate of Central High and the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's earliest black veterinarians, he would become the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal.

Hundreds more have followed, including Jesse Owens, 28 years later. Yet few African American Olympians had careers as groundbreaking, as widely admired, or as tragically brief as the gentlemanly Taylor's.

"It is far more as the man [than as the athlete] that John Taylor made his mark," Harry Porter, the captain of the 1908 U.S. Olympic team, wrote to his teammate's grieving parents. "Quiet, unostentatious, genial, kindly, the fleet-footed, far-famed athlete was beloved wherever known."

 

Best known in the world

Most modern histories of African American athletes begin with Jack Johnson, the flamboyant fighter who won the world heavyweight title just days after Taylor's 1908 death.

Several years ago, Craig T. Williams, a Montgomery County author who also owns a Norristown construction company, was researching the life of Johnson when he came across Taylor's story and "was blown away."

"This was an individual not only gifted athletically but also gifted intellectually," said Williams, who used what he subsequently learned about Taylor as the basis for his self-published novel The Olympian.

"He enjoyed the unusual circumstance of being from a middle-class family," Williams said. "His parents were born slaves, but his father became an entrepreneur and was able to provide a lifestyle for his family that was almost exclusively available to white Americans."

Taylor was born in Washington in 1882. His parents moved to Philadelphia shortly afterward, began a successful business, and purchased the home on leafy Woodland Avenue, near what is now the heart of Penn's campus.

"We're really not sure what kind of business it was," said Williams, "but there are a number of reasons to believe they might have been caterers."

An eager and able student, Taylor went to Central, where he was one of the few black students at the city's premier public educational institution.

As a junior there, he began running track. By the time he was a senior, Taylor would be the team's captain and the city's finest schoolboy quarter-miler.

After graduating from Central in 1902, he spent the following year at Brown Prep, a now-defunct Philadelphia private school that had a knack for producing nationally recognized athletes and teams.

Taylor anchored Brown's relay team to an undefeated 1903 season. The foursome's highlight came at the Penn Relays, where Brown set an interscholastic record in the event's mile relay. In doing so, he became a local phenomenon.

Sportswriters, marveling at the 5-foot-11, 160-pound runner's stride, measured it at an astounding 8-foot-6. By then, five years before Johnson would become heavyweight champion, Taylor was one of the best-known black athletes in the nation.

Originally enrolled in Penn's Wharton School, he switched his academic focus as a junior to veterinary science.

As one of a handful of black students at Penn, he was the powerful track team's star, winning several IC4A titles at 440 yards and anchoring various relays. He was, despite being what Williams termed "an oddity in that setting," extremely well-liked and respected. Track coach Mike Murphy called him one of the school's most popular students.

Penn Relays director Dave Johnson, who also has researched Taylor extensively, said the runner did not try out for the 1904 Olympic team in part because the Games that year in St. Louis were merely a glorified club competition.

Held in conjunction with that city's World's Fair, the '04 Olympics were, like those four years earlier in Paris, primarily a sideshow attraction involving American athletic clubs. The overwhelming majority of competitors were from the United States, Johnson said. It wouldn't be until the next Games, in 1908 at London, that the concept of national teams would arise.

By then, Johnson noted, Taylor was the best quarter-miler in the world. And he burnished that reputation that same year at the AAU championships in Norfolk, Va.

 

No ordinary man

Just 42 years after the end of the Civil War, Taylor was one of the first black athletes to compete against whites in that former Confederate port city. During the 440 final, he was deliberately bumped by a white competitor. Taylor ignored the foul and won the race.

"[Taylor] was so loudly applauded," an anonymous writer noted in the next day's Inquirer, "that hundreds of Southern gentlemen rushed up and shook him by the hand, an almost unheard of thing . . . in the South."

Back at Franklin Field, Taylor would win the 400 meters in the 1908 Olympic trials for the East. When he later was named to the U.S. team, he became the first African American to represent the United States on an official national team in an Olympics.

Before a crowd of 66,288 that included King Edward VII, Taylor marched into the stadium at Shepherd's Bush on July 13 with 88 other American athletes. Ralph Rose, supposedly in solidarity with Ireland, which was not recognized by Great Britain, refused to dip the U.S. flag when the team passed the king.

Despite being hampered by a hernia, Taylor likely would have won an individual medal in the 400 meters had it not been for the athletic antagonism between the United States and England.

One of the 400's four finalists, American John Carpenter, obstructed England's Wyndham Halswelle in the stretch. Carpenter finished first, but officials, who had been warned of such a possibility, voided the race after the incident.

Carpenter was disqualified from the event, which would now be contested among just three runners in two days, July 25. But Taylor and teammate William Robbins withdrew to protest Carpenter's ouster, and the now-unopposed Halswelle ran the race solo to get the gold.

The first relay race in Olympic history - a sprint medley consisting of two 200-meter legs, a 400 and an 800 - was held later on July 25, and the U.S. team won easily. Taylor ran the 400 in 49.8 seconds. One of those 200 legs was run by his fellow Penn Quaker, Nate Cartmell, and the 800 by Mal Sheppard, a former Brown Prep teammate.

(Though he was the first to earn gold, Taylor was not the first African American to medal at an Olympics. In 1904, two track and field competitors, Joe Stadler and George Poage, essentially competing for their club teams, had combined to win three medals - a silver and two bronzes.)

After the Games, Taylor stayed in Europe to compete, returning to Philadelphia that fall. At some point, he contracted typhus, fell ill and died at his parents' home on Dec. 2.

The New York Times would call his funeral, at which four ministers, including one from Boston, officiated, "one of the greatest tributes ever paid a colored man in this city."

Taylor's passing was the lead story in the following day's Inquirer, his photo alongside a headline that read: "Red and Blue Athlete Runs His Last Race."

Williams said Taylor managed, to a surprising degree, to transcend race at a time when the color of a man's skin defined and - in the case of non-whites - limited him.

"I dare greatly," Taylor said in a phrase that became his remarkable life's motto, "and I shall live as no ordinary man bound by a game of chance."

 


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.