RANSON —Jefferson County has lost a true Renaissance man whose dedication to spreading the word about the history of African Americans here, devotion to his students and community, and humility are unparalleled. James L. “Coach” Taylor, 86, passed away September 7. He was born in Charles Town but lived in Ranson.
Taylor epitomized the term Renaissance man, which the dictionary defines as a person with many talents and areas of knowledge. It actually doesn’t do him justice. He was a teacher, a historian, as well as a talented athlete.
George Rutherford, head of the Jefferson County NAACP branch, was a lifelong friend of Taylor.
“We grew up together. He was a self-made man and a hard worker. He helped a whole lot of people. He would mold kids and get them to take charge of their lives. He would get the most out of them,” Rutherford said.
For example, in 1965 Taylor taught math, reading and GED classes at the Harpers Ferry Job Corps facility. Job Corps is a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor that offers free education and vocational training to young men and women ages 16 to 24.
“He had some tough kids from Washington, D.C. but he got them to learn math. He really got to them, made them feel they could accomplish something with their lives,” Rutherford said.
Larry Togans is a former student of Taylor’s who first met him in 1959 when he was in seventh grade and had Taylor as a science and homeroom teacher and coach at Page Jackson High School, the segregated school for African-Americans in Charles Town. The former school is now the home of Jefferson County School district officials. Togans went on to become the school district’s first African American board of education member and board president.
“I knew James for a very long time. He was my mentor. He always went the extra mile with students and their parents,” Togans said.
Togans said Taylor trusted him completely.
“He not only let me drive his car, but he would give me his paycheck to take to the bank for him,” Togans said.
Togans played football, basketball and ran track on Page Jackson’s state championship team in 1965. That was the year Page Jackson closed. Togans said he heard many life stories from Taylor, inspiring him to join the Navy, like Taylor did, then go to college.
Taylor founded the Page Jackson Alumni Association, which still exists today. He even has a $1,000 scholarship named after him from the organization.
Taylor attended Eagle Avenue Elementary School in Charles Town and graduated from Page Jackson High School in 1951. After graduating high school, Taylor enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the Korean War from 1951-1955.
After serving in the Navy, Taylor enrolled in Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), in 1955 and graduated from Shepherd College with a bachelor’s degree in science. He attended graduate school at West Virginia University and earned a Master of Science Degree in 1965. He was recently inducted into the WVU College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences Hall of Fame.
He became a teacher at his former high school, Page Jackson, where he taught general science, biology and physical education. After Job Corps, in 1972 he became a teacher at Jefferson High School. He taught biology, human anatomy and physiology, along with being a junior varsity football coach, assistant basketball coach and head coach for cross county and track and field. At Jefferson High School he was given the nickname “Coach.” Taylor was awarded West Virginia High School Track Coach of the Year in 1994. He retired from teaching in 1995.
His years at Jefferson High included guiding James Jett, who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL and to win a gold medal as a sprinter at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Robert Rizzo, a retired teacher and coach at Jefferson High, worked with Taylor in basketball, football, and track.
“He started the summer recreation program in Ranson,” Rizzo said. “I traveled with him to different games. Everybody knew him no matter where we went. He had a great personality. I considered him like a big teddy bear, but he wouldn’t want to hear me say that.”
While a student, Taylor was the first African-American football player at Shepherd College and the only African-American on the team for three years.
Many years later, Taylor and his wife Dorothy, who was also a teacher, served as co-grand marshals of the 27th-annual Jefferson County African-American Cultural and Heritage Festival in 2019 in honor of their long careers in education and many other contributions. Dorothy passed away last year.
With a list of accomplishments in education and sports, history was also one of Taylor’s passions.
“I think Renaissance is the word that comes to mind when it comes to Taylor. Here was a man who was a science teacher, and yet he had an interest in history. That’s not that common,” said Doug Perks, historian for the Jefferson County Museum.
Perks said Taylor knew about John Brown, a white man who conducted a raid on the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in 1859, but didn’t know of any African Americans who were part of the event. Taylor went on to become one of the founders of the Jefferson County Black Historian Preservation Society, along with George Rutherford, the late James Tolbert and the late Nathaniel Downing in 2000.
Taylor is also the author of two books, one, “African Americans in the Lower Shenandoah Valley,.” and the second book, “A History of Black Education in Jefferson County, West Virginia 1865 to 1966.
In a prior interview, Taylor said he remembered hearing stories of slavery told by elderly neighbors who’d been children in the years before the Civil War.
“We had older people in the neighborhood who were former slaves and lived through Reconstruction,” he said. “They didn’t talk about it, but they also never said anything bad about our country. They weren’t mad or mean. They were very courageous and patriotic people.”
One thing that was always stressed by those around him as he was growing up was the importance of education.
Later in life, Taylor volunteered for six years at the Charles Town Visitors Center, letting residents and tourists know about the county’s history. Arthena Roper, who serves as Magistrate in Jefferson County, often stopped at the center during her lunch hour.
“He was like the village professor. I worked right nearby. His knowledge of county history was immeasurable. I would leave my lunch hour, not full of food but full of information,” said Roper.
Annette Gavin Bates, CEO of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, who runs the center, said Taylor was “truly an icon. He would give walking tours in Charles Town. He could tell great stories. There is no one like him. He’ll be missed.”
Bates’ praise for Taylor was echoed by Alfred E. Baylor, Jr., Taylor’s first cousin, who also volunteered in Bates’ organization because of Taylor.
“He adopted me into history land. He had fantastic tales about our county’s history. He was a great teacher and football player. He could do anything but he never beat on his chest and said, ‘Look at me. Look at all the good I’ve done.’ Never. He was humble. You would never know about all he had done. He was the nicest man I ever met,” said Baylor.