Sports and athletic activities have always been a large part of American life. The early colonists played at rounders, bowled, raced horses, raced each other in footraces, wrestled, and competed in many other ways. From private games arose organized competitions between individuals. Team sports grew to include competition between cities and towns, and organized leagues began to emerge. Barnstorming teams in several sports traveled between towns to take part in games between themselves and locally organized opponents. In the industrial age many factories and other industries had their own leagues in football and baseball, boxing events featuring their employees, and other organized sports.
Schools made sports a sanctioned extracurricular activity and competed against one another. Professional sports leagues developed and gradually tiers of leagues based on the level of play were operated by governing bodies in accordance with their owners’ whims. One of those whims was segregation. At every level, amateur and professional, sports in America was segregated. Competition between blacks and whites was frowned on in nearly all sports (boxing was an exception) and segregation, sometimes informal in structure and sometimes through bylaws was the rule well into the twentieth century. It was slowly broken down, but it was a lengthy process, and for those that pioneered the desegregation of sports an often painful one.
Here are ten athletes who changed the world of sports for the better for those that followed them.
Many famous black athletes have represented their country in the Olympics, including Muhammad Ali (as Cassius Clay), Jesse Owens, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and the list goes on and on. The first to do so is unremembered by most. His name was John Taylor. He was a young track star who was the fastest high school runner of the quarter mile in the United States. Born the son of former slaves in 1888, Taylor was trained as a veterinarian, and was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, the first black fraternity in the United States.
Taylor was born in Washington DC and grew up there and in Philadelphia, where he went to public elementary schools before enrolling in Central High School. Philadelphia’s public schools were desegregated, as were their athletic teams. Taylor went out for the Central High track and field team, running track, the only African American to make the team. He specialized in the quarter mile and the in the relay. Upon graduation from Central High he enrolled in Philadelphia’s Brown Preparatory School, attending classes there one year, and running track.
Taylor enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, attending the Wharton School of Finance, in the fall of 1903. The following spring he joined the varsity track team. That May Taylor broke the intercollegiate record for the 440 yard run with a time of 49 1/5 seconds, as recorded by the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, known as the IC4A. In 2007 Taylor, then attending the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Taylor ran the 440 at the IC4A Championships and won with a record time of 48 4/5 seconds. Taylor graduated In June 1908 and the following month went to London as a member of the United States Olympic Team.
The first black athlete to represent the United States in international competition, Taylor competed in the 400 meter relay, running the third leg, and the 1600 meter medley relay, where the runners ran legs of differing lengths. Taylor ran the third leg, a distance of 400 meters. The American team was involved in a foul in the 400 meter relay, and the rules of the time required the race to be rerun, with the runner who had committed the foul removed from the team. The Americans refused to rerun the race, in effect forfeiting the race. In the 1600 meter relay the Americans won and Taylor became the first African American to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
Taylor won, in addition to his Olympic Gold Medal, forty-five cups and trophies and 70 medals during his track career, though fate did not grant him much time to enjoy them. Preparing to establish himself as a veterinarian in Philadelphia he contracted typhoid fever in the autumn of 1908, dying of the disease in December at the age of only 26. He was buried in Philadelphia.