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Opinion Piece: Harlem Set the Blueprint

By Gary Corbitt

I wanted to write this to continue the process of setting the record straight about New York road running history.  “Harlem Set the Blueprint” was the title for the panel conducted by Alison Mariella Désir and Harlem Run during New York City Marathon weekend.  Alison was the moderator, and the panelist included myself, Pam Cooper Chenkin, and Meb Keflezighi.

These two quotes from Pam Chenkin, author of The American Marathon, are the most important takeaways we want the running community to hear: 
“The modern marathon footrace is a gift to the world from New York City’s Black community”

“The story of the New York City Marathon until 1976 is Black History and should be taught as such.”

The New York Pioneer Club (NYPC) story has been overlooked and hidden for too long. This is a story of how Mr. Joseph J. Yancey used athletics and civil rights activism to better the community. The NYPC was founded in Harlem in 1936 by three Black businessmen: Joseph Yancey, Robert Douglas, and William Culbreath. The club became an integrated team in 1942 and was a welcoming home for Jewish athletes.

The roots and foundation of today’s sport of road running start with the NYPC.

Browning Ross, in forming the Road Runners Club of American (RRCA) in 1958, adopted the NYPC inclusive culture. 

There would not have been a Road Runners Club New York Association in 1958 if not for the NYPC; the co-founders were NYPC teammates John Sterner and Ted Corbitt, and nearly half the membership came from the NYPC.

Today’s worldwide urban marathon culture, where athletes of all abilities are invited to the starting line, uses the NYPC model of inclusiveness.

When speaking of New York Road Runners and New York City Marathon history, these three Black leaders should always be part of the narrative:

Joseph J. Yancey – Co-Founder and Coach of the NYPC.
Theodore Corbitt – A Founding Father of Long Distance Running in United States.
Percy Sutton – Manhattan Borough President, 1966-1977.
The New York Pioneer Club –One of history’s most unique and influential athletic teams in the world.

These Black men and the NYPC have been overlooked for years in print and broadcast coverage of the New York City Marathon history.  Even in this year’s race there was no mention of Joe Yancey, the NYPC, or the Ted Corbitt Loop. Recognition of Corbitt is growing thanks to Mitchell Silver, who was responsible for naming the six-mile route in Central Park after my father, Ted Corbitt.

The panel also gave me the opportunity to set the record straight about the origins of the five borough concept.  In the 45 years of articles, books pertaining to New York running history, and a documentary on Fred Lebow, each cites George Spitz with coming up with the five-borough idea.  History is fragile, easily lost, forgotten, and sometimes distorted.  I learned from Pam Chenkin the importance of documenting facts with original source material. The more original sources the better.

There have been multiple pieces dating back to 1976 citing some confusion as to the origins of the five-borough marathon. It is about time for everyone interested to begin documenting this history correctly. Ted Corbitt wrote George Spitz after reading a piece by Paul Milvy that also talk about confusion on this issue. Dated May 22,1976, the letter states the following:

“It is clear to me that you brought up the idea of staging a race in NY City and that you wanted it to be special worthy of the “big apple and that you sought possible financial and other assistance, with the hope of inviting some top foreign and out of town runners.  In response to your question, I mentioned that a race could be set up and that the most unusual race you could set up would be a sweep thru all five boros, providing the distance wasn’t too long.”

I posted this on social media and to my mailing list last week and the running pioneer Pete League responded with the following: “I have three rules to live by: Put it in writing – Put it in writing – Put it in writing.”

George Spitz was a pivotal figure, but he did not come up with the five-borough idea.  Spitz had the relationship with Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who gave the green light for the race to happen. It should also be noted that it was Harry Murphy, a co-founder of the Prospect Park Track Club, who designed the course.  It also should be noted that it was Murphy who invited Corbitt to join the NYPC in 1947.

Many of the innovations in long distance running were started in New York long before Fred Lebow came on the scene in 1970. There were six NYRR presidents who preceded Lebow.  NYRR leaders got their voices heard on governance issues by volunteering to serve on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and RRCA committees. Along with my father and John Sterner the other major leaders were Aldo Scandurra, Joseph Kleinerman, Nina Kuscsik, Vincent Chiappetta, Barry Geisler, and Kurt Steiner.  These New York runners were part of the first generation of pioneers who help refine the sport.  Allan Steinfeld also a member of NYPC led the second generation of NYRR pioneers as he and Lebow grew the sport.  Of the first eight Presidents of NYRR four at one point represented NYPC in competition.

The sport is at a crossroads in terms of running history preservation.  Many of the historic figures are aging or deceased. Families are faced with the decision of what to do with running collections.  I’ve formed a committee to address this issue. History preservation hasn’t been a high priority in long distance running and track & field.  This committee has many people with collections (stakeholders) and has the opportunity to develop a plan to address this matter.  I’ve recommended that we develop a Best Practice Guide for Running History Collections to provide guidance for family members. On our first zoom committee meeting Roger Robinson urged us not to ignore the local information.  Much of what we revere is local, so such gatherings of information are invaluable. I take that as every community and discipline need to be excellent keepers of their respective histories.

I’m about to start a foundation where I’ll be looking to recruit research scholars to study the sport and storytellers to create inspirational historic stories.  If you’d like to do research and write stories, please contact me.

When talking running history preservation, I like to end my presentation with these two quotes:

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.
Carter G. Woodson

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Marcus Garvey

Here’s a link to the panel discussion: learn more about the New York Pioneer Club visit here: