In honor of Black History Month, UTB would like to shed light on a very influential Penn alumnus, Willis Nelson Cummings. During his time at the Penn Dental School, Cummings became the first African American captain of any varsity team in the Ivy League, and upon graduation in 1919, he was the first African American admitted into the national dental society, Omicron Kappa Upsilon.
Born in Texas, Cummings attended the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, where he got involved in the school’s track team. After Fisk, Cummings was accepted into the Penn Dental School as one of the two African American students in a class of 259 total. He joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and became a member of the varsity track team, earning captainship a year later. Discrimination did pervade even at Penn, and unfortunately “no team photograph was taken of the 1918 cross country team because of a reluctance to show an African-American sitting in the center as captain.”
After his graduation, Cummings moved to New York and established a dental practice in Harlem. In the 1930s, his efforts in the fight against racism and discrimination opened the doors of the Dental Society of New York to admit African Americans and Jews as members.
Tags: Features, african american, alpha phi alpha, black history month, civil rights movement, dental school, dental society of new york, omicron kappa upsilon, people who went to penn, varsity track team, willis nelson cummings
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