With the 2020 Olympic Games underway in Tokyo, even though the pandemic pushed them into 2021, a writer wanted to know who was the first African American to win a gold medal. Many believe it was Jesse Owens in 1936 when he dominated the event with his victories. But four years before his accomplishments, Eddie Tolan, a sprinter from Detroit took home gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races.
But according to several historic accounts of the games, John Baxter Taylor Jr. was the first African American to top the podium with gold. Okay, this was news to me too, and it sent me on a dig to find out more about this great athlete.
He was born on Nov. 3, 1882, in Washington, D.C. His parents were former slaves and had settled in Philadelphia. After attending the city’s public schools, John graduated from Central High School in 1902. During his year at the Brown Preparatory School in Philadelphia, John began winning races and soon established himself as the fastest quarter-miler in the country.
Those achievements continued when he became a student at the University of Pennsylvania, topping the field in the ICAAA (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America) quarter mile race. In 1908, he graduated from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, the first Black fraternity. When he signed on with the Irish American Athletic Club, which had pursued him relentlessly, he was the club’s most promising Black member.
At the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, he ran the third leg (400 meters) of the men’s medley relay earning a gold medal. The foursome included William Hamilton, Nate Cartmell, a teammate from Penn, and Mel Sheppard, who had attended Brown Preparatory. As the middle link in the relay his job was to maintain whatever advantage the previous runners had and possibly extend it. In both the semi-finals and the finals, the team was victorious, increasing their time to 3:29.4, and thereby making John the first African American to win a gold medal.
He was able to equal his time in the men’s 400 meters but that wasn’t good enough, finishing in fourth place. Ultimately, because of despite and disqualifications, for the first time in Olympic history a gold medal was won in a “walkover.”
John was only back in the States a few months when he died of typhoid fever on Dec. 2, 1908. He was 26 and his body is interred at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pa. In his obituary, The New York Times called him “the world’s greatest Negro runner.”
“It is far more as the man (than the athlete) that John Taylor made his mark. 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,” wrote Harry Porter of the Irish American Athletic Club.