Penn Athletics will be inducting its Hall of Fame Class VIII this Saturday, May 5 at the Inn at Penn. As we prepare for the upcoming ceremony, we will be introducing each inductee over the next several days. Click here to find the original release on all the inductees, from February 22.
A three-year member of the Penn cross country and track & field teams (1917-19), Willis N. Cummings faced much more adversity than your typical collegiate athlete. Not only did he have to overcome the course, track, fatigue and his opponents, but he also had to overcome the color of his skin.
Cummings was just the third African-American student at Penn to earn a varsity letter, and when he was named captain of the cross country team in 1918 he became the first African-American to captain a varsity program for any team at any school in the Ivy League. However, for decades, his accomplishments were buried -- by Penn and its opponents -- because of his race.
After earning a bachelor's degree from Fisk University in 1916, Cummings enrolled in the University's School of Dentistry as one of two African-Americans among the Class of 1919's 259 members. He joined the cross country and track & field teams with the support of head coach Lawson Robertson, but that decision was not widely accepted. Several schools refused to run against Cummings and the Quakers as long as an African-American was on the roster.
Coach Robertson was unfazed by much of the criticism and anointed Cummings as team captain in 1918, simply because he was the best of his time. Cummings won the Mid-Atlantic AAU cross country championships as a junior and a senior -- the first person to ever accomplish that feat, regardless of race.
However, most of Cummings' records and accolades disappeared upon his graduation. In fact, in 1918, no team picture was taken, as Penn was reluctant to show an African-American sitting in the center as a team captain.
It was not until 1963, when Cummings brought in his own scrapbook, newspaper clippings, mementos and research that his name was restored to the official records.
Cummings, who ran in three Penn Relays as a member of the Red and Blue, graduated sixth in his class and was the first African-American elected to Omicron Kappa Upsilon, the national dental honor society. Following his retirement from dentistry in 1970, he could often be found taking laps around the famed Franklin Field track.
As late as 1980, every team photo in Penn history hung in the Donaldson Room of Weightman Hall -- except that of the 1918 cross country team. A photo of Cummings stood in its place. With those photos since replaced, Cummings now regains his rightful place in that room -- alongside the rest of Penn's greatest athletes.