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Willis Nelson Cummings

February 18, 2010

After earning a Bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1916, Willis Nelson Cummings became one of two African Americans in the UPenn School of Dentistry class of 1919. As a member of the varsity cross country team from 1917 to 1919, Cummings became the third African American at Penn to earn a varsity letter, but as the captain of the team in 1918, Cummings became the first African American to be the captain of a University of Pennsylvania team. In becoming captain of the Quaker team, Cummings also became the first African American varsity captain in the Ivy League and the Big Ten. Cummings was such an incredible athlete that we went on to win both the junior and senior champion of the 1918 Middle Atlantic Association AAU Championships – the first runner of any race to accomplish that feat. Sadly, records of his achievements disappeared after his graduation, until he brought in his own scrap book as evidence of his accomplishments. Additionally, some schools did not allow their runners to compete against him, and there was no photo taken of the cross-country team that he captained, due to racism. Despite this discrimination, Cumming’s track achievements were remarkable, as was his professional life after Penn. He went on to be a successful dentist in Harlem, practicing for 49 years. He died at 97 years old in December, 1991.

Morgan Roper (Col ’10) and Jeffrey Tillus (WH ’11)

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