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Penn Relays Carnival and John Baxter Taylor, Jr.

February 22, 2012

Penn Relays Carnival, also known as Penn Relays, is one of the most famous sports events of the year and is the nation’s first and largest track and field competition of the year.  Aside from its status as being a premier event in every sense of the word, Penn Relays is also an institution in American culture, particularly Black American culture.  Since the competition’s inception in 1895, the Relays have always hosted a diverse group of athletes from around the world.  Not only has the competition always been open to African American entries, but it has also been the stage for the success of many Black international athletes, such as Jamaican track phenomenon Usain Bolt.  This unique feature in the event’s history is reflective of the subsequently steadfast participation and success by Black athletes in the competition as well as the deep roots that the historic competition has in the Philadelphia community.

John Baxter Taylor (#23) with teammates Nathaniel Cartmell, Melvin Sheppard and William Hamilton at the 1908 London Olympics

Penn Relays has also been the home of one of the most historically significant African American track athletes.  Just as it had been a trailblazer in the late 19th century when African Americans were struggling to simply be recognized as citizens, Penn Relays was the home field competition for tack and field standout and historical trailblazer himself, John Baxter Taylor, Jr.  Starting his Penn career as a Wharton student in 1903, Taylor would eventually transfer to the School of Veterinary Medicine, but would ultimately find his home on Franklin Field, more specifically, the track.  As the only African American on the 1904 Penn Men’s Track & Field team, Taylor rose to stardom and achieved great success as a student athlete, but did not stop there.  After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he competed in the 1908 Olympics and became the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal, ironically enough as the only Black runner on the winning 1600-meter relay team.

Mikhael Abebe, CAS ‘12

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