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The first black athlete to compete in the Olympics

By Michael Kachitsa

John Baxter Taylor Jr. (November 3, 1882, Washington, D.C. – December 2, 1908, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American track and field athlete, notable as the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal.

He was born in Washington D.C. to former slaves. The family settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended public schools and graduated from Central High School in 1902. He spent a year at Brown Preparatory School, also in Philadelphia, where he was the fastest high school quarter-miler in the country.

As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he was the ICAAAA (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America) champion in the quarter mile. He bested his personal time in 1907, and again was the ICAAAA quarter mile champion. He graduated from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1908, and was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, the first black fraternity. He was recruited by the Irish American Athletic Club in New York, and was its most prominent African American member.

Taylor was a member of the gold medal-winning men’s medley relay team at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. He ran the third leg, performing the 400 meters. He followed William Hamilton and Nate Cartmell (fellow athletes from the University of Pennsylvania) and was followed by Mel Sheppard (a fellow athlete from Brown Preparatory School). In both the first round and the final, Taylor received a lead from Cartmell and passed one on to Sheppard. The team won both races, with times of 3:27.2 and 3:29.4. Taylor was the first African American to win an Olympicgold medal. His split for the final was 49.8 seconds.

He advanced to the finals in the men’s 400 metres race at the 1908 Summer Olympics, winning his preliminary heat with a time of 50.8 seconds and his semifinal with 49.8 seconds. In the first running of the race, Taylor came in last place out of the four runners. However, teammate John Carpenter was disqualified after being accused of obstructing British runner Wyndham Halswelle and the race was ordered to be repeated without Carpenter. He still ran to the finish, Taylor and fellow American William Robbins didn’t refuse to compete in the second final. They all reluctantly ran the second final , with a time of 50 seconds, and was awarded the gold medal.

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