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Together We Move Podcast: Unbraided History

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History is fragile. I was fortunate to be around the sport. I saw the people that helped invent the sport. And these names would be easily forgotten and lost. - Gary Corbitt

It’s amazing, the stories. And they stay with you once you hear them. You never forget them. - Faith Morris

...being slaves, we basically were told, don’t go far. You can’t run very far. - Tony Reed

ASHLEY ARNOLD (HOST): You’re listening to part three of a four-part series of audio content that coincides with the One Million Miles for Justice Virtual event. It runs from June 15 to July 15 2020, and you can register at anytime before July 15. The cost for registration is $25 and the net profits go to the NAACP.

KATE SCHWARTZ (HOST) There is a link on fleetfeet.com/blog with a link to the RunSignup page where you can register for the event.

ARNOLD: I’m Ashley Arnold

SCHWARTZ: And I’m Kate Schwartz.

When we look at history broadly, we’re often not seeing the whole picture. We’re seeing the picture that we’re wanted to see from the perspective of the person or people in power.

ARNOLD: But there is always more to the story, as we all know through our own life experiences. And so, when we really examine history, when we start to unravel its threads--we see the layers that have been covered up, like the underside of a braided rope. And it is up to the storyteller to bring them to life.

Today we examine a section of that unbraided history. From the perspective of distance running. But before we do, let’s first take a step back to at US history.

SCHWARTZ: Particularly the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Because it sets the stage for what’s next.

If you’re listening to this episode when it comes out, around the fourth of July, consider reflecting on our nation’s history. And how there’s always another side to every story.

MUSIC TRANSITION

ARNOLD: Can you start by telling us your name and what you do?

FAITH MORRIS: Faith Morris. I am the Chief Marketing and External Affairs officer at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the civil rights movement. We certainly chronicle all of what the movement was about. And we maintain Dr. King’s legacy, and what he meant and what he got done through the movement. But it also talks about the thousands of men and women who risked their lives, some lost their lives in trying to fight for freedom and justice in this country. So, it’s a transformational experience. It’s one that when our visitors come through they say that they’ve been changed. That they, in some instances, learned things they didn’t know. In some instances they have found someone that they know, a relative or themselves, that were part of the movement and their stories are told.

That’s what we’re about. We’re about being a catalyst for positive social change. And we are a site for protest and a site where people come to have difficult conversations. And understand race and bias. Understand what it means to be in this country, and how the civil rights movement has really impacted the world.

So, once you get out of your car you actually begin the National Civil Rights Museum experience. And a big part of that experience is knowing you are on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine is where Dr. King was assassinated. His last days in Memphis were at the Lorraine. So, you walk on to the museum campus and you see the outside of what was the Lorraine Motel. Even the cars in the parking lot under the balcony are still there. And then you see the wreath, and it’s in front of 306. And that’s where Dr. King was standing when he was assassinated. So, many of our visitors come, one, to see the museum. But two, to absolutely be on the space. Be where Dr. King spent time here, trying to help the sanitation workers working through poverty. When you come to our door, then you see that you are stepping inside of a museum.

ARNOLD: And there is so much about this rich history that people don’t even realize.

MORRIS: People are very surprised how young Dr. King was. He was 39 when he was assassinated. And he had done a lot by 39. And how much of the movement he was really involved in. To see Congressman John Lewis, who was a young man, who was a college student with SNC, a leader in SNC, where these were students who were activists and alongside the SCLC. And sometimes in opposition to it because they were a little more radical. They felt they needed to be more vocal, more active, more deliberate. But John Lewis in so many of our exhibilts. You have Bayard Rustin who was gay, openly gay and in an interracial relationship. But he was the mastermind behind the March on Washington. And because of the times he really couldn’t be out front. Everybody says that Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat. Well, she didn't, but there were people before her, women, who didn’t give up their seats. But Rosa Parks was chosen to really make the statement because of her position, her standing with the NAACP. And they felt that because of her positioning that it would resonate more.

So, there are all kinds of really great stories. So, it’s just instance after instance after instance of the lives and the stories of folks that just did what they needed to do, wanted to have a better life and a life for their families and their communities. And what they risked to get it done. And it’s amazing the stories. And they stay with you once you hear them. You never forget them.

ARNOLD: Our second interview is with Tony Reed of the National Black Marathoners Association. Reed co-founded the organization to bring Black distance runners together and to honor those who have shaped the distance world as we know it today. Many of these runners have had a huge impact on our running culture today, yet they are relatively unknown.

SCHWARTZ: Reed created the Black Distance Runners Hall of Fame to honor outstanding Black distance runners for their accomplishments and to preserve their role in history. These stories, too, are ones you will never forget.

TONY REED: OK, my name is Tony Reed and I am the co-founder and executive director of the National Black Marathoners Association. When I think about it when we talk about African Americans running distance, I used to hear Black people don’t do distance. Black Americans don’t do distance. We do sprints.

I kind of envisioned African Americans being slaves and we basically were probably told don’t go far. You can’t run very far. And for some reason this may have gotten embedded in people’s minds that Blacks don’t run far. It’s a limitation that other people are placing on us and sometimes we place it on ourselves. We say African Americans don’t run distance.

So I want to kind of remove that and say we’re free to run anywhere and everywhere and not be mentally held back by the distance. And sometimes I feel that we may be mentally trapping ourselves and limiting ourselves by not expanding ourselves and moving out of our comfort zone.

When I started running the internet didn’t exist and the way you could learn about running a marathon was by reading books. I read the Complete Marathoner by Joe Henderson, who was also an editor at Runner’s World. In his book he started each chapter with a picture of a runner and a quote on the opposing page. And one page he had a picture of a white runner and then he had a quote from Ted Corbitt.

At the beginning of another chapter he had a picture of a black runner and a quote from Ted Corbitt. So by the time I got to the second quote from Ted Corbitt, I didn’t know if Ted Corbitt was White or if he was Black. The second time he appeared, the whole chapter was about the course measurement technique and in that entire chapter, they never mention Ted Corbitt’s name. You go to the back of the book in small print, they finally acknowledge Ted Corbitt’s contribution to the course measurement method.

ARNOLD: Reed first read this book in the early 1980s. And he didn’t know anything about Corbitt’s accomplishments until 2013. Even though Ted Corbitt was one of the major contributors to the course measurement system that we use in running today. It was a result of learning about Ted Corbitt and also about Marilyn Bevans, who placed second place at the 1977 Boston Marathon, that he decided to do something about it.

And that’s when he started the Black Distance Runenrs Hall of Fame to shed light on the accomplishments of African American distance runners. Reed himself had become motivated to run after he learned about Dick Gregory and he wanted to provide that same motivation to other Black distance runners as well.

SCHWARTZ: Reed stresses that many young Black runners don’t have role models or opportunities to help them advance in the sport. Much of Reed’s vision for the National Black Marathoners Association and the Black Distance Running Hall of Fame centers around the promotion of role models to black runners who show interest and promise in distance running.

They also offer scholarships to help these young runners pursue their dreams. He created a space where Black runners could come together to support one another, and find inspiration, motivation and friendship.

And that’s something Reed didn’t have as a young runner. He says he didn’t know a single other Black runner for years when he first started running marathons. Along with Ted Corbitt, Gary Corbitt, his son, was inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2019.

ARNOLD: In a press release announcing his induction, Reed wrote, “Gary Corbitt is the 'Carter G. Woodson' of African American distance running history. Without Gary's knowledge and support, there may not be a National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. He produced the African American Long Distance and Middle Distance Running History Timeline from 1880 – 1979. This compilation is the first of its kind and is the Hall of Fame's foundation."

ARNOLD: You can start by you telling me your name and a little about yourself and what you do.

GARY CORBITT: OK, I’m Gary Corbitt. I live in Jacksonville, Florida. I recently celebrated my 44th wedding anniversary. I’ve been retired nine years from a broadcasting research career. In that time I’ve been working on not only preserving my father’s legacy but the history of the sport. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to do this, and have had the time to do it.

SCHWARTZ: Why do this at all, though? For Gary, it started with a desire to share stories about his father, go back into the archives of his childhood and make sure that he was remembered for his exceptional work.

CORBITT: Well, as a child I kept up with his training diaries. I read those religiously. So, it was good to see those again after so many years. But he was far from being the first great African American long distance runner. I wanted to demonstrate that, and document that. That was a key motivation to do it. But the African American side of the sport has not been properly researched. There’s a lot more to be done. That was a motivating factor. To demonstrate the great history going back to 1880. I stopped in 1979 so there’s still a lot more to be done. I hope my work will inspire others. I’m looking at starting a foundation that would grow running history scholars to study the sport more. And the African American side of the sport.

Pam Cooper wrote a book called The American Marathon. She did a great job in studying African American distance runners. And I asked her how much did she capture? She said she got only about 50 percent. When I did the timeline and I maybe added another 15 to 20 percent. There’s another 25 to 30 percent out there to be researched. So, I’ve got to get more people involved to study the sport. I’ve got enough just working on my father’s legacy. So, I have to be careful how I prioritize my time.

ARNOLD: Ted Corbitt could easily be considered the father of long distance running in the US as we know it today. His accomplishments in training, holistic physical therapy and even administration in distance running are too vast to summarize briefly. But here are some of his most impactful contributions.

SCHWARTZ: Corbitt wrote and published a booklet to establish the nation’s first course measurement and certification program.

ARNOLD: His method created the standard for legitimate record keeping in distance running for the first time.

SCHWARTZ: Before he created the standard, there was no consistent method for measuring a race course.

CORBITT: The sport, it was a big problem in the sport. A race could be advertised as 10 miles but it could be nine and half miles or 10 and a half miles. And when he won the national marathon championship in 1954 the distance was actually 26.8 miles. So, and he would acknowledge that this was his greatest contribution to the sport because how can you have a legitimate sport if you can’t verify records and have a standard system where records could be verifiable?

SCHWARTZ: Corbitt was the first Black American to represent the US at the Olympic Marathon in 1952, and the first to win a national marathon championship in 1954.

ARNOLD: He introduced the ultramarathon to the U.S. and typically ran about 20 miles per day at one time. And, on four occasions, he completed 300-mile training weeks while working full-time. That’s an average of 44.6 miles per day.

SCHWARTZ: Corbitt was one of the first African Americans to enter the field of physical therapy. He developed holistic forms of therapy that were well before his time. Wearing down his body with high mileage was often a way for him to experiment with new forms of therapy and recovery that hadn’t been tested elsewhere.

Corbitt was also the founding president of New York Road Runners Club in 1958, which now has over 70,000 members and puts on the New York City Marathon.

ARNOLD: He was the first editor of their newsletter. He was also the man behind the idea to run a race through all of New York’s five Burroughs--though he thought it should be an ultramarathon, not a marathon.

SCHWARTZ: Ted Corbitt’s ideas and actions have deeply impacted the running world as we know it. Yet, many runners have never heard of him.

ARNOLD: Even Tony Reed, who is a self-proclaimed African American history buff, said he didn’t know Ted Corbitt was black until 2013. There is so much history that we don’t know. There are so many parts of history to unbraid and learn.

CORBITT: Yeah, it was a lot. The sport we enjoy today, the inclusiveness of it really started in the Black community Harlem in the 1930s with the forming of the New York Pioneer Club. This was an integrated team, home for Jewish athletes of the New York area. That was started by three Black gentlemen in 1936. In 1942 they opened it up to white athletes and it became integrated. So you have this club that was making civil rights history and running history. The inclusive nature of our sport really started with the Pioneer Club.

I’ve used the term unprecedented so many times with everything that’s going on today. I talked actually yesterday with New York Road Runners yesterday. This is a time to make a statement in the sport, primarily a white folks’ sport. The origins started in the Black community. In terms of the culture. The inclusive culture where all are welcome, all abilities are welcome. There’s something there in terms of bringing our country racially together, certainly.

History is fragile. I was fortunate to be around the sport. I saw the people that helped invent the sport. And these names would be easily forgotten and lost. So, I have the ability to raise these names up and keep this history alive.

ARNOLD: When we learn more about the contributions of the people that we never saw, we start to wonder if sport is a valuable place for social change.

Is it possible that running can in fact be a catalyst for change? Can the miles that we’re putting in right now help us to shape a better future if we keep uncovering those stories?

SCHWARTZ: Thanks, everyone, for listening. As a reminder there is still time to register for the One Million Miles for Justice Event. Between now and July 15, 2020. You can join wherever you are, and it’s an excellent way to support the cause for racial justice and work on your own fitness goals at the same time. The cost to sign up is $25 and the net profits go to support the NAACP. Thanks again, and we hope you’ll join us.

And finally, before you go, we encourage you to visit Tedcorbitt.com. Check out the National Civil Rights Museum. They’re reopening with social distancing measurements in place this week. And be sure to look up the National Black Marathoners Association to learn more and get involved in their programming.

To make it easy you can visit fleetfeet.com/blog for a full transcript as well as a link to the websites we listed. Thank you all and have a great weekend.

ARNOLD: When we learn more about the contributions of the people that we never saw, we start to wonder if sport is a valuable place for social change.

Is it possible that running can in fact be a catalyst for change? Can the miles that we’re putting in right now help us to shape a better future if we keep uncovering those stories?

SCHWARTZ: Thanks, everyone, for listening. As a reminder there is still time to register for the One Million Miles for Justice Event. Between now and July 15, 2020. You can join wherever you are, and it’s an excellent way to support the cause for racial justice and work on your own fitness goals at the same time. The cost to sign up is $25 and the net profits go to support the NAACP. Thanks again, and we hope you’ll join us.

And finally, before you go, we encourage you to visit Tedcorbitt.com. Check out the National Civil Rights Museum. They’re reopening with social distancing measurements in place this week. And be sure to look up the National Black Marathoners Association to learn more and get involved in their programming.

To make it easy you can visit fleetfeet.com/blog for a full transcript as well as a link to the websites we listed. Thank you all and have a great weekend.

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