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Penn men's basketball senior Jelani Williams (center) is happy with the progress Penn has made on racial injustice, but knows now is not the time to stop pushing. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

2020 is a critical year, one where even in the absence of Ivy League sports, Penn athletes used their platforms to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing issues of racial injustice and police brutality. Without the attention and involvement of Black athletes, Penn Athletics’ Plan of Action would never have come to fruition, as athletes have continued to ask more of the university in giving back to the West Philadelphia area and the greater Philadelphia community. The Daily Pennsylvanian strove to document these changes, in addition to looking back on the buried early history of Black athletes at Penn.

June 16

On June 11, Penn Athletics’ announced their first steps toward combating racism after meeting with approximately 30 Black athletes to determine a Plan of Action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Penn Athletics first acknowledged past complacency when it came to racism. The plan included elements such as expanding implicit bias and microaggression training to all coaches, staff, and athletes, creating a Diversity and Inclusion position on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and growing current civic engagement programming.

Nearly every single Penn team held a virtual discussion to discuss recent protests and racial injustices. One of the teams was Penn track and field, led by head coach Steve Dolan who hails from Minneapolis. The track and field team held multiple individual meetings between athletes and coaches, as well as a larger team meeting.

“Penn Athletics, our team, I think we strive to figure out what we can do and how we can each play a role in making Penn, our community, and the world better,” Dolan said.

Sept. 7

After the release of the Penn Athletics plan and the beginning of the new school year, Penn basketball players and athletes reacted. Penn women’s basketball senior Michae Jones heavily emphasized the influence of the athletes: without their initiative, Penn Athletics’ Plan of Action would never have come into being.

Penn Athletics’ initial inaction drove Penn men’s basketball senior Jelani Williams, along with Penn volleyball senior Raven Sulaimon and track and field seniors Marvin Morgan and Demetri Whitsett, to outline a number of concrete actions for Penn Athletics to become an “anti-racist organization.”

Penn athletes urged for greater representation in hiring Black coaches and professors, beyond simply hiring Black professors only within the Africana Studies department. Additionally, they urged Penn to give more to the West Philadelphia community.

For many athletes, the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice did not suddenly manifest after the murder of George Floyd. Penn men’s basketball sophomore Lucas Monroe learned about Black Lives Matter after it was founded in 2013. Monroe, along with Jones, reflected on experiences of systemic racism when they were far younger: Monroe recalled when he was nine and police officers questioned him at a basketball court, even threatening to take him to the police station.

“The main thing is that we were frustrated by how Penn and Penn Athletics had a bit of a late response to what is going on,” Monroe said.

Sept. 8

Jelani Williams sat at the forefront of much of Penn athletes' activism, with his activism already well-documented in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Penn Gazette.

Williams was largely unsatisfied with only following the Plan of Action. He especially wanted Penn to do more for the West Philadelphia community, emphasizing how the school did not pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs). Penn, as a property tax-exempt organization, does not make any financial contributions to the local Philadelphia government.

"There’s a lot that Penn can do outside of just trying to appear that they’re on the right side of this issue, because at the end of the day, as a school with a multi-billion dollar endowment with very powerful alums, very powerful students, and very powerful people, there is a responsibility there for them to affect change in the education sphere,” Williams said.

Living at Penn, Williams felt that he was in a bubble. Members of the University City and West Philadelphia communities surrounding Penn, which are home to many of the city’s BIPOC residents, do not view Penn as an available resource.

“I just think that there needs to be major action, and I would like for Penn to take the lead, because there are so many resources, and there is so much that we could do,” Williams said.

Sept. 8 

Senior sports editor Will DiGrande argues that athletes, as celebrities and role models, have the right to use their platforms to protest, including the right not to play.

Along with kneeling for the national anthem, actions such as striking from playing games draw attention to systemic racism in America and keep it in the national spotlight.

Professional athletes in major professional leagues, such as the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS all refused to play following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers. Former No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka similarly withdrew from her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open in late August.

From Chuba Hubbard, an athlete at Oklahoma State who fought against his coach Mike Gundy was seen wearing a shirt bearing a far-right organization’s symbol, to Penn athletes who pushed the athletics department into creating change, athletes at universities nationwide have been demonstrating the increasing power they have to incite change.

Sept. 30 

There was no single “color barrier” at Penn, but many. The history of Black athletes’ presence at Penn is difficult to uncover, as it is equally a history of exclusion and erasure.

Track and field marked the start of this history. John Baxter Taylor, Jr. enrolled as a Wharton student and competed on Penn’s track team in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1907, and 1908. He went on to become the first Black athlete to win a gold medal in the Olympics for the United States, during the 1908 Olympics in London.

A decade after Taylor, Willis Nelson Cummings became the first Black captain of any varsity sport in either the Ivy League or the Big Ten. The Quakers’ team photo tradition was discontinued for that season, and there was no official record of Cummings running for Penn until 1963, when he brought his own scrapbook of clippings and archives to the administration. 

While Cummings was starring on the cross country team, Douglass Sheffey became one of the first Black baseball players to suit up for the Quakers. Almost three decades after Sheffey, Bob Evans and Eddie Bell were the first two Black athletes to play for Penn’s football team. Evans became Penn’s first Black football captain in 1952.

John Edgar Wideman may have been Penn’s first Black basketball player, as the team photos do not include any Black players until Wideman joined varsity in 1961. Wideman ultimately became the second Black Rhodes Scholar ever.

These stories only scratch the surface of the endemic racism for collegiate athletics at Penn. These elisions in Penn’s archives serve as a painful reminder of what is missing from its history.

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