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First In The Race: Black Athletes at Penn

February 8, 2011

Although some scholars argue that the University of Pennsylvania is not America’s first university, several of Penn’s African-Americans athletes can safely claim that they were indeed the first in their respective endeavors.

John Baxter Taylor began his Penn career at the Wharton School in 1903 but withdrew after his second year. He subsequently enrolled into the School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 1908. That same year, he became the first African-American to represent the United States at the Olympics. Taylor was a member of the winning 1,600 meter sprint medley team, thus becoming the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal.

After graduating from Fisk University with a Bachelor’s degree in 1916, Willis Nelson Cummings entered the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dentistry. While at Penn, Willis became involved in athletics, and in 1918, he became the first African-American captain of a varsity team at Penn and the first in the Ivy League.

John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman won All-Ivy status as a forward on Penn’s basketball team and also competed on the track team. Wideman, the quintessential student-athlete, not only graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1963, but also became Penn’s first African-American Rhodes Scholar. John is also an outstanding author and is the first author to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction twice: in 1984 for his novel Sent for You Yesterday and again in 1991 for his novel Philadelphia Fire.

Regardless of whether Penn is actually America’s first university, the Penn Relays (or Penn Relays Carnival) is undoubtedly the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States. The Penn Relays began on April 21, 1895, and from its inception it accepted African-American entries. It was the first major athletic meet or organization to allow African-Americans to participate.



Christopher J. Carter


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