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New NYRR Historian Fellowship Highlights the Need for Sharing Untold Stories of the Sport

But piecing together the forgotten moments in running history will take more work than just one role.

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The New York Road Runners recently announced it is hiring a historian fellow in an effort to inspire careers in public service and promote an inclusive telling of running history. The Corbitt Historian Fellowship, named for the organization’s founding president, Ted Corbitt, will last for two years, with the appointed candidate helping to establish a systematic process for preserving running history in New York and around the country, as well as for NYRR. This salaried position with benefits will involve researching, fact-checking, and ensuring overall accuracy for several historical projects, including short-form video, an oral history library, a newsletter, articles, and more. The deadline to apply is March 18.

While this is the first official project of its kind at NYRR, it was suggested to the organization several years ago by Corbitt’s son, Gary, who also works as a historian of the sport. It’s also part of ongoing efforts to preserve history both at the organization and through New York City’s running landscape as a whole, says Erica Edwards O’Neal, NYRR’s senior vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“For so many people, understanding history [has entailed] untold, half-told, or sanitized versions [of history] that exclude or show people or events from a one-dimensional lens,” O’Neal says. “There’s also the additional concern of who gets to tell their story, and we all benefit from an inclusive, accessible, and honest telling of history.”

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“After my father passed, he left so much history and I was motivated to not only preserve his legacy but also the history of the sport because his breadth of things he did covered all aspects of the sport,” Corbitt says. “Unfortunately, the sport and its leadership and governing bodies have not done a good job of preserving history and it has not been a priority. So to see this happen is huge and I’m hoping it will serve as a model for other large running organizations and governing bodies to do more.” 

It was also no coincidence that NYRR announced this new project during Black History Month, as the telling of Black running history has been extremely lacking in the last several years, according to both O’Neal and Corbitt.

“Ted Corbitt has been described as the ‘Jackie Robinson of running,’ but in running households, his name isn’t as well-known as it should be,” O’Neal says. “We’re hoping that we tell the story in different ways and also tell the stories of Black American women runners such as Marilyn Bevans (the first Black American woman to run a sub-3-hour marathon), Ella Willis-Glaze, and Michele Bush Cuke, among many others. We will learn different and more expansive stories, and we will see not just running, but also history through a more expansive lens.”

“The lack of history of African-American running is pitiful; there’s just so much Black running history that has not been documented,” Corbitt adds. “We need this for future generations of athletes, for scholars to know the history, and for athletes to be inspired by it.”

O’Neal noted that the ideal candidate for this role is someone who has a passion for history and has an expressed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and belonging.

“They should be detail-oriented with a passion for people, as this [involves] understanding communities, people’s stories, histories, and cultural backgrounds,” she says. “They need to want to engage with current history, the notion of capturing what is happening now, history not just as a past but what is happening actively. You need to be someone who cares about people with an expansive view on the world and have a passion for learning.”

O’Neal also highlighted other recent and relevant projects the organization has worked on in this regard, such as a collaboration with Black Gotham, an organization that highlights the untold Black footprint in New York City, as well as groups working to understand the impacts of redlining, like Undesign the Redline.

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“It’s extraordinarily important to understand the communities through which we run, host programs, and understand not just the current makeup, but what are the histories and how we got there,” she says. “We’re doing a great deal in terms of our marketing, storylines, who we’re highlighting, making sure we’re also showing the intersectionality of runners and citizens of the city that we serve.” 

O’Neal also acknowledged the work NYRR has done to examine its own work on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front in the last year, after allegations of racism and sexism from staff members came to a head in 2020.

“We were a bit quiet on some of our DEI work, but we spent a year being deeply engaged in learning via monthly diversity documentary series, creating space for dialogue, and implicit bias training,” O’Neal says. “We’re learning and growing together, and understanding storytelling and our teammates, staff members, colleagues, and runners’ histories is an important part of the work.”

Other Runners Digging into the History of the Sport

Corbitt also highlighted Starting Line 1928, which he helped to initiate with the Road Runners Club of America. This is an oral history project documenting the experiences of female distance running pioneers, many of whom are still alive. This project, which is a 2022 recipient of the Tracksmith Fellowship, will involve a team of paid historians recording podcast interviews with these trailblazing women, as well as the production of a blog and social media content to promote awareness.

Another relevant project is the upcoming release of professional runners Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery’s book How She Did It, which aims to highlight pivotal moments in running history with interviews from the women at the forefront, from Shalane Flanagan and Brenda Martinez to Katherine Switzer, Madeline Manning Mims, and Joan Benoit Samuelson. These women share their expertise and how they accomplished these milestones. 

“Our focus in writing the book was to tell the women’s stories, not necessarily to create a full history of the sport—but in reading through the experiences of the pioneers of the sport compared to the experiences of today’s top athletes, a lot of the history emerges,” Huddle says. “It gives context for where the sport came from; where it’s been and where we hope it’s going…In distance running, [for example], [Mims’s] whole career was paradigm-shifting, especially her winning gold in Mexico City. For women, I’d say also getting the distance events added to match the men’s schedule at the Olympics was important—especially in the marathon, which took extra effort to convince people women could compete in.” 

“Highlighting the historical moments and barriers that others faced before us helps us remember how much progress has been made, and reminds us that we are capable of making progress of our own,” says co-author Slattery. “[Marielle Hall, for example,] felt she got put into [middle-distance events] because not many Black athletes run the longer events. Representation matters—if girls can see other athletes like themselves succeeding, it’s easier for them to believe they are capable of doing it, too.”

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