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Sun, 07.29.1894

Willis Cummings, Dentist born

Willis N. Cummings

*Willis Cummings was born on this date in 1894. He was a Black Dentist.

Willis Nelson Cummings was born in Galveston, Texas, where his parents met. His mother, Mary E. Badger, was the first African American woman to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree at Clark Atlanta University, and his father, William N. Cummings, a native of Tennessee, was a graduate of Fisk University. His mother taught Latin, and his father became the city's first black school principal. Cummings' maternal great-grandfather John B. Badger had been a practicing dentist in Atlanta, Georgia, since 1815. He attended college at Fisk University. While in college, he became the first Black to register with the Texas Association of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).

After earning a bachelor's degree from Fisk University in 1916, Cummings became one of two African Americans among the 259 members of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dentistry, Class of 1919. While a Penn student, Cummings was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.  Graduating sixth in his class, he became the first African American elected to Omicron Kappa Upsilon, the national dental honor society. A member of the varsity cross-country from 1917 to 1919, Cummings was the third Black student at Penn to earn a varsity letter and the first to break other athletic barriers. As team captain in 1918, Cummings became the first Black to captain a varsity team at the University of Pennsylvania - and in the Ivy League or the Big Ten.

His athletic ability made him both the junior and senior champion of the 1918 Middle Atlantic Association AAU Championships - the first runner of any race to win both championships in the same year.  Jim Crow, however, marred Cummings' accomplishments. Some rival schools, including the United States Naval Academy, refused to have their athletes compete against a Black man.

And even at Penn, Cummings faced discrimination despite coach Lawson Robertson's support. No team photograph of the 1918 cross-country team was taken because reluctance to show black achievements at Penn somehow disappeared after his graduation. It was not until Cummings brought in his scrapbook and research that his name was restored to the official record.

In 1969 the Pennsylvania Athletic Club publicly acknowledged Cummings as Penn's first black captain of a varsity team. Dr. Cummings practiced dentistry in Harlem from 1920 until his retirement in 1969.  In New York, he fought racial discrimination; in the 1930s, his efforts helped open up the Dental Society of New York to allow Jews and Blacks to become members. He married Blanche M. Rudd of Hamburg, Virginia. His dental office was at the same address as their apartment, 2340 Seventh Avenue.

Cummings remained physically fit even in his senior years; at age 85 and wearing his Penn varsity sweater, he surprised a young engineering student by passing him on a lap around the Franklin Field track. Cummings died in Harlem at age 97 on December 2, 1991.

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