Paul Sutton, Ted Corbitt at the New York City Marathon, 1973. PCN Photography/Alamy Stock Photo
Running for Civil Rights: The New York Pioneer Club, 1936 – 1976
Opens October 27, One Week before the 2023 Marathon
As nearly 50,000 runners from around the world prepare to convene for the annual TCS New York City Marathon on November 5, the New-York Historical Society is proud to open a new exhibition exploring how this great celebration of athletic endurance and civic inclusion grew out of decades of activism for racial justice. On view October 27, 2023 – February 25, 2024, Running for Civil Rights: The New York Pioneer Club, 1936 – 1976 tells the story of two extraordinary Black athletes and coaches—Joseph (Joe) Yancey Jr. (1910-1991), co-founder of the New York Pioneer Club, and Olympic marathon runner Theodore (Ted) Corbitt (1919-2007), a Pioneer Club member who became the first president of the TCS New York City Marathon’s founding organization, New York Road Runners—revealing how they broke the color barrier and revolutionized long-distance running in the United States and throughout the world.
“New York Road Runners has a rich history that spans 64 years and began with the pioneering work of our founding president Ted Corbitt,” said Rob Simmelkjaer, CEO of New York Road Runners. “As runners from all over the world embark on Manhattan for the TCS New York City Marathon this year, we hope they can make the Running for Civil Rights exhibition a stop on their itinerary so they can truly understand the meaning behind their miles, and how Ted and Joe Yancey’s contributions to the running world made it the diverse community it has come to be today.”
“The legacies of Joe Yancey and Ted Corbitt are present in spirit at the finish line of every New York City Marathon,” said Marilyn Satin Kushner and Allison Robinson, the exhibition’s co-curators. “We hope visitors will come to understand how this marathon is, in many ways, an ideal Yancey and Corbitt envisioned and how their work opened long-distance running to a more diverse community.”
Founded in Harlem in 1936, the New York Pioneer Club (NYPC) was established to “encourage and further the ambition of our youth for higher education that they might become intelligent, civic-minded citizens, and to work toward a better racial understanding through the medium of education and sports.” Within only a few years, the Pioneers emerged as both an athletic powerhouse and an activist institution which protested against segregated events and facilities, sponsored racially integrated competitions, and challenged the economic and racial biases of the principal governing body of long-distance running, the Amateur Athletic Union.
At the head of NYPC was its co-founder Joseph Yancey, a member of the famed 369th Infantry Regiment—the Harlem Hellfighters—who traveled the world coaching track and field on the amateur and Olympic levels. Among the athletes NYPC attracted was Ted Corbitt, who in 1952 became the first African American to compete in the Olympic marathon. Known as the father of the ultramarathon in the United States, Corbitt competed in more than 200 marathon and ultramarathon races across the globe, meanwhile changing marathon running from an outlier event into a rationalized sport. He developed a method of standardizing course measurements, was a professional physical therapist who helped amateur and professional athletes alike reach their full potential, and promoted the sport through an active national network. In 1958, with other runners, many affiliated with the NYPC, who wanted to modernize and expand the sport of long-distance running, Corbitt organized the Road Runners Club-New York Association (now the New York Road Runners) and became its first president. After years of working to make running more inclusive, NYRR founded the New York City Marathon in 1970. NYRR held the first race in Central Park and six years later, at Corbitt’s urging, altered the course to weave through all five boroughs.
Highlights of the exhibition include an original copy of the New York Pioneer Club creed; Ted Corbitt’s 1952 Olympics uniform; Corbitt’s letter advocating to move the New York City Marathon to all five boroughs; and photographs featuring Corbitt running from London to Brighton and the 1947 walkout protesting segregated housing conditions at Amateur Athletic track and field competitions in the South. Additional items include the medal and souvenir cup awarded to Yancey for his work coaching track and field athletes in Jamaica and the sign marking Joseph Yancey Track and Field in Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx. Many of the objects are on view in New York City for the first time.
The exhibition is drawn largely from documents, objects, photographs, and maps from the private collections of Gary Corbitt, Theodore Corbitt’s son; Yvonne Floyd-Mayers and Christine Mayers, granddaughters of Joseph J. Yancey Jr.; Michael Marcellus Walton, grandson of Joseph J. Yancey Jr.; and the New York Road Runners. The exhibition is curated by Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator and head, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, and Allison Robinson, associate curator of exhibitions. Pamela Cooper Chenkin, author of The American Marathon, served as advisor.
Lead support for Running for Civil Rights: New York Pioneer Club, 1936 – 1976 is provided by New York Road Runners. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new wing housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Tumblr.