Kimberly Garrison: Book tells story of 1st American to win Olympic gold

Philadelphian John Baxter Taylor won the medal at the 1908 Games.
Philadelphian John Baxter Taylor won the medal at the 1908 Games.
Posted: February 24, 2011

NO DOUBT about it, were I born a century ago, I would have been a "race woman." In case you're unfamiliar with that term, race women or men were proud black Americans who deliberately engaged in activities that uplifted their race.

February being Black History Month, this is a good time to reflect on their importance. As a lifelong student of black history, I continue to be shocked and amazed at the many new stories that continue to be excavated from our past.

Amazed describes exactly what I felt recently when I interviewed author Craig T. Williams about his historical novel The Olympian: An American Triumph (iUniverse, $16.95), about the extraordinary John Baxter Taylor Jr., the first African-American Olympic gold medalist.

"I stumbled across the story while researching Jack Johnson [the first black heavyweight champion] and became really curious about what other African-American pioneers were out there," Williams told me.

Williams, by the way, is fascinating in his own right. The successful entrepreneur and owner of Pride Enterprises Inc., a Norristown construction company, said that he worked on this book for 20 years and that his true passion is storytelling, particularly stories of forgotten but exceptional heros.

Taylor was born in 1882 in Washington, D.C., to parents who'd been born into slavery. The family relocated to Philadelphia, where, under what had to be insurmountable odds, the young Taylor became a track-and-field star. He would also become not just the first African-American but the first American to win an Olympic gold medal, at the 1908 games in London. He was a member of the 1600-meter relay team, which also set a world record in that race.

Described as a tall, lanky man, this son of former slaves lived by these words: "I dare greatly, and I shall live as no ordinary man bound by a game of chance."

Indeed, that is exactly what Taylor did. Determined always to be a standout, he graduated from Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. He also was a member of the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, the first (and most prestigious) African-American professional organization. Sadly, Taylor died of typhoid fever when he was just 26.

No doubt, his perseverance and determination paved the way for future generations and is an inspiration to all. In his novel, Williams weaves together the forgotten threads of this great hometown hero.

"Dr. Taylor's Olympic achievement is only the tip of the iceberg that makes him a fascinating and heroic figure," Williams said. "It is his ability to transcend the culture of the times in his nonathletic life, as a doctor of veterinary medicine, and the choices that he made in spite of harsh realities that make him a hero."

To learn more about this extraordinary African-American, I encourage you to meet the author at book-signings this weekend:

_ Black & Nobel, 1411 W. Erie Ave., 1-4 p.m. tomorrow.

_ Horizon, 901 Market St., No. 25, 1-3 p.m. Saturday.

Also, there will be a closing celebration of Black History Month, commemorating John Baxter Taylor, from 1-4 p.m. Monday at Conversation Hall in City Hall, officiated by Mayor Nutter.

For more information or to purchase The Olympian: An American Triumph, go to www.theolympian.net or www.amazon.com.

Kimberly Garrison is a certified personal trainer and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia (www.1on1ultimatefitness.com). E-mail her at

kimberly@1on1ultimatefitness.com. Her column appears each Thursday in Yo!

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