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‘The Olympian’: Story of the Almost Forgotten John Taylor, 1st African-American Gold Medalist

Craig Williams walked through the gates of Eden Cemetery, the oldest African American cemetery in the U.S., one fall day in 2007. Even though the Collingsdale, Pa., cemetery contains the bodies of several black luminaries — including civil rights leader Octavius Valentine Catto and opera singer Marian Anderson — Williams didn’t come for any of these big names. He was there to see John Taylor, the first African American to win Olympic gold.

Taylor was a college graduate and a star athlete, recognized for his success even by then president Theodore Roosevelt. But in 1908, the same year he medaled at the Olympic games in London, he died of typhoid pneumonia.

And with his death, much of Taylor’s story was lost.

Since then, his Olympic feats and much of what we know about his life have been relegated to history books and university archives. Even in this famous cemetery where he is buried, Taylor’s legend remained unknown. An index card in the cemetery’s file helped Williams find Taylor’s grave — where his family’s tombstone leaned crookedly in the unkempt grass.

“They weren’t aware that he was buried there,” Williams said. “Subsequently they have absolutely recognized that he was someone to be remembered but he was lost in history. It’s not a reflection of the cemetery, but a reflection of society and culture and how someone can be forgotten.”

Who is John Taylor? He was a member of the 1908 Olympic relay team. He won a gold medal in the 1600 meter race. He was an Ivy League student who graduated with a degree in veterinary studies. His stride measured 8 feet 6 inches, the longest of any runner at the time. His 49.1 seconds time in the 440 yard race broke the world’s interscholastic record. Four years later he did it again with a time of 48.6 seconds.

In 1908, The New York Times called Taylor the “world’s greatest negro runner.”

But so little of his legacy is known today. Williams, 44, wanted to change that.

His journey to Taylor’s gravesite that day, which he’d later have restored, was the culmination of years of tireless research.

Williams, a building contractor, first heard about Taylor in 2006 while refamiliarizing himself with Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. He stumbled upon Taylor’s name on a list of African American firsts…

Read more: Huffington Post

 

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