Taylor became the first black athlete to represent the United...

Taylor became the first black athlete to represent the United States in the Olympics in the 1908 London Games. During the same games, he became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics as a member of the 1600-meter medley relay team. Credit: University of Pennsylvania Archive

Detailed records from the early 1900s being scarce, and with no time machine available, Craig Williams chose to tell John Baxter Taylor's mostly elusive story with a historical novel. Williams' 2010 book, especially timely during Black History Month and this summer's London Olympics, is called "The Olympian: An American Triumph."

It takes the bare bones of what can be verified about the first black man to win an Olympic gold medal and adds muscle and blood with some fictional characters and incidents -- devices, Williams said in a telephone interview, "to reflect the culture and circumstances of the time realistically."

Williams, a 44-year-old CEO of a construction business in Norristown, Pa., came to the project -- his first novel -- through an interest in "heroic storytelling, classically heroic stories, and opening them up to other cultural perspectives." He stumbled on to Taylor's tale while researching history on Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion from the early 20th century, and spent 3 1/2 years chasing whatever bits of detail he could find on Taylor.

He started with the archives at the University of Pennsylvania, where Taylor studied finance, then veterinary medicine. He unearthed obituaries, rare articles, the official history of the 1908 London Olympics. He found the Taylor family plot at Eden Cemetery, the oldest African-American-owned cemetery in the country located in Collingdale, near Philadelphia. (Among others, opera's Marian Anderson is interred there.)

"There were a lot of gaps in the story," Williams said, "because Taylor had no surviving descendants, no family members keeping his legacy alive."

Taylor, unmarried, died at 26 of typhoid fever in December, 1908, months after he won the gold medal in what was then a new Olympic event -- and never on the Olympic program again -- a medley relay consisting of 200-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter legs. (Taylor ran the 400).

Two days before that relay, on July 23, 1908, he was involved in one of the most controversial races in Olympic history, when British officials accused three American runners of illegally conspiring to block favored Scottish runner Wyndham Halswelle's path to victory in the 400 meters. Taylor, physically pulled off the track by British umpires, joined teammate William Robbins in refusing to participate in the rerun on the 25th, when Halswelle ran alone and was declared Olympic champion.

That much is fact. But, in his research, Williams said, "it was apparent pretty quickly, in order to tell the story and make it compelling and relatable, it would be necessary to figure out how to explain some sequences of events."

Williams put himself in Taylor's shoes, filling 241 pages with an elaborate first-person narrative. He created a racist white nemesis he named Charles Cook and threw in a fictitious chance meeting between Taylor and boxing champ Johnson. Working only with descriptions that Taylor's father, who had been born into slavery, was an "entrepreneur," Williams made him a caterer, "a reasonable choice for an African-American at the time."

Because there was no evidence of how Taylor contracted typhoid, Williams "suggested that his travel by steamship, back and forth to Europe [for the London Olympics] may have caused him to stay in steerage class, where disease was rampant."

Williams said he wanted to "convey the challenges Taylor had to have faced" in the Jim Crow era; how, "at the time, it was a rarity for an African-American to compete in sports -- something we take for granted now -- and to couple that with the fact that, to have an Ivy League education, Taylor was a trailblazer.

"The researchable facts are all adhered to, and the parts that are fictionalized had to ring true," Williams said.

Still, a time machine would be welcome to resurrect much more of this fascinating history.

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