Front Runner

The death of John Baxter Taylor V’08 in December 1908 was front page news in The Philadelphia Inquirer and written up in The New York Times, not to mention The Daily Pennsylvanian. A smallish story in the December 12, 1908 issue of Old Penn nevertheless noted that the funeral of “the negro runner from the University of Pennsylvania” had attracted “hundreds of other athletes and friends of the departed athlete.”

A stalwart on Penn’s track teams from 1903-1908 (he entered the University first in Wharton, then switched to the Veterinary School), Taylor’s specialty was the quarter mile, in which he set records in 1904 and 1907. After graduating with a degree in veterinary medicine in 1908, he traveled to England for the Olympic Games, where he became the first African American to represent the U.S. in international competition and the first to win a Gold Medal (as part of the team that won the 1600 meter relay). Just months later, the 26-year-old was dead from typhoid pneumonia and his story was largely forgotten, until recently.

Taylor was the focus of the Ivy League’s celebration of Black History Month this year, and his remarkable career is detailed in a story by Dave Johnson of the Penn Relays office on the league’s Web site ( In March, the Ivy Group Presidents announced that an anonymous gift had been received to establish the John Baxter Taylor trophy, to be awarded annually to the Ivy League men’s heptagonal team champion.

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