John Baxter Taylor was a remarkable athlete and a pioneer for African Americans in sports. He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1882 to former slaves and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended Central High School and Brown Preparatory School. He excelled in track and field, especially in the 400-meter race, and became the best quarter-miler in the country. He enrolled in the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued to dominate the track scene and won several championships. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 1908. He was also a member of the Irish American Athletic Club and Sigma Pi Phi, the first black fraternity.
In 1908, Taylor made history by becoming the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal. He was part of the U.S. medley relay team that competed in London, along with William Hamilton, Nate Cartmell, and Mel Sheppard. Taylor ran the third leg of the race, covering 400 meters in 49.8 seconds. The team won both the preliminary and the final races, setting a new world record of 3:27.2. Taylor also qualified for the final of the individual 400-meter race, but he refused to participate in a second run after his teammate John Carpenter was disqualified for obstructing a British runner. Taylor and another American runner, William Robbins, protested the decision and withdrew from the race, leaving the British runner Wyndham Halswelle to win by default.
Taylor’s Olympic achievement was a source of pride and inspiration for many African Americans, especially at a time when racial discrimination and violence were rampant in the U.S. Sadly, Taylor died of typhoid fever on December 2, 1908, just four months after his Olympic triumph. He was only 26 years old. He was buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, where his grave is marked by a simple stone that reads: “John Baxter Taylor Jr., M.D., First Negro Olympic Champion.” His legacy lives on as one of the greatest athletes and trailblazers in American history.