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Willis Nelson Cummings

February 25, 2012
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Willis Nelson Cummings, age 79, sporting his Penn varsity letter.

Willis Nelson Cummings is most notably the first African American to become a captain of an Ivy League varsity team while attending the University of Pennsylvania.

Cummings was born in Galveston, Texas, on July 29, 1894. Cummings attended and graduated from Fisk University where he organized the first track and field event held at the university in 1916. In 1917 Cummings became one of two African American men to enroll in the School of Dentistry of the University of Pennsylvania.

While attending the University of Pennsylvania, his athletic abilities soon began to shine. He was the first African American to captain an Ivy League or Big Ten team and the first ever to become junior and senior champion of the Middle Atlantic Association AAU Championships in 1918.

Though at the time no pictures were taken of the team because they did not want to portray an African American man in the center as captain, in 1969 the Pennsylvania Athletic Club publicly acknowledged Cummings as Penn’s first Black captain. Cummings later passed on December 2nd, 1991, at the age of 91.

Janese Jackson, CAS ’14

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