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Black and white picture of marathoners running a race in the 1952 Olympic games.
Ted Corbitt (bib #999) runs in the 1952 Olympic marathon in Helsinki, Finland. Retrieved from the International Olympic Committee database.

Fredericks: How Black American distance runners shaped the sport from the shadows


The world of competitive long-distance running took off in the 1970s. But stories of the sport’s Black architects and pioneers who laid its foundation have been largely untold for decades. 

Teaching Assistant Professor Jake Fredericks in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois has dedicated a significant part of his research to uncovering the legacies of successful Black long-distance runners who grew the sport “from the shadows” while challenging enduring racial stereotypes. 

“The explosion of running in the 1970s could not have happened without the efforts of the earlier generation, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to lay the groundwork for the races in the first place,” Fredericks said. “These are the men who established the marathon courses or put the structures in place for organizations that could support bigger and bigger races.” 

This Memorial Day Weekend, he’ll co-lead a panel presentation on Black running history to an academic audience at a conference for the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). Fredericks will present papers alongside Gary Corbitt, an archivist and son of legendary long-distance competitor Ted Corbitt, and Suzuko Morikawa, associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Chicago State University. 

Dave Wiggins, the former NASSH president and professor emeritus from George Mason University, will co-moderate the discussion. 

Fredericks’ paper, titled “When is it Okay to Run Around Your Neighborhood in Shorts?: Representations of Black Running at the National Marathon Championship,” examines the country’s perceptions of race and long-distance running through the prism of the AAU National Championship in Yonkers, New York, the nation’s second-oldest marathon.

From 1938 until 1966, Yonkers was the site of the country’s preeminent championship marathon race, and several Black American runners—such as Louis White, Ted Corbitt and Harold Harris—posted some of its best times, more than a decade before long-distance running grew beyond its niche, community-driven status.  

While Black American athletes such as basketball’s Bill Russell, baseball’s Jackie Robinson and tennis’s Althea Gibson received significant coverage in the newspapers of the day, “marathoning was on the margins,” Fredericks said. 

In 1952, Corbitt became the first Black American to represent the United States in the Olympic marathon. Two years later, Corbitt was crowned champion in the 1954 National Marathon Championship. 

“That victory is so sparsely covered across the newspapers in the United States, that he's mostly forgotten. Ted Corbitt is not a name that we often say alongside Jackie Robinson, even though they're competing at the same time and had similar levels of success,” Fredericks said. “My research looks at how these Black Americans really shaped the sport, even from the shadows.” 

Chicago’s Harris posted his best performance in the 1964 Yonkers Marathon, finishing fourth—just one spot removed from a bid to compete in that year’s Summer Olympics. 

Compared to the more “glamorous” track and field events such as sprints and jumps, long-distance running lacked institutional support, Fredericks said. So, in 1958, many of the sport’s top competitors formed the Road Runners Club of America, opening chapters with running enthusiasts in major American cities. 

Harris became one of the founding members of the Midwest Road Runners branch based in Chicago, which fostered a multiracial community of runners in the city, Fredericks said. Meanwhile, based in New York City, Corbitt pioneered techniques to measure more accurately the 26.2-mile marathon races.

Back when Harris competed, marathons were lucky to run 100 participants, Fredericks said. The “marathon boom” of the 1970s changed all of that. 

A confluence of factors led to marathoning, and running writ large, to hit the mainstream. Medical science backing the health benefits of exercise had steadily grown while Cold War-era pressures to increase Americans’ fitness continued. Then, in 1972, Frank Shorter won the marathon at the Munich Games, scoring the United States’ first gold medal in the event since 1908, and first medal since 1924. 

Shorter’s success was lionized in the media, and his profile—a white, educated American man—suddenly became the prototypical image of the long-distance runner. 

“We lose the image of Ted Corbitt, who could have just as easily been the image of running, or somebody like Harold Harris, in Chicago, could have been the image of running,” Fredericks said. Those kinds of pioneering figures get replaced throughout the ‘70s, by a Frank Shorter-esque, well-to-do upper middle-class person.” 

The lack of recognition these Black American pioneers faced also played into athletic racial stereotypes. Fredericks’ dissertation, “Great Speed and Great Stamina,” in part challenged the lasting notion that Black athletes were “built” for explosive, powerful feats but couldn’t win in tests of endurance. 

The stereotype seemed to build from the sport of boxing, where analysts alleged that Black fighters couldn’t “go the distance” in the ring. Jesse Owens’ prodigious success in the sprints and long jump Olympic events of the 1930s shattered racial barriers in the sporting world but reinforced some of the same athletic stereotypes that dogged Black American athletes of the day. 

These Black runners' success, however, “disproves these stereotypes that, unfortunately, have lasted 100 years. They've just been so hard to remove in the minds of the public,” Fredericks said. 

Part of the mission of Fredericks’ research, along with Gary Corbitt’s new Ted Corbitt Institute for Running History Research, is to document the history of the sport’s development more accurately and recognize the oft-forgotten figures who laid its framework. 

What stands out to Fredericks is many of these early organizers’ foresight: “They knew that road running had this potential to engage the masses,” he said. Even when races were lucky to field a dozen runners, they kept pushing to host events and spread the word. 

“Black Americans are a huge part of the story of long-distance running. Today, we reap the benefits of their efforts to establish and grow the sport of running, yet that part of the history often gets left out.” 

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