The New York Pioneer Club – the Forgotten Heroes of Running

In the current edition of Like the Wind – LtW#25 – we tell the story of a remarkable group of runners who used track, road and ultra running as a way to create hope and pride in young people treated as second class citizens in society, challenge racism in sport and beyond and change the face of road running around the world.

So how is it that the New York Pioneer Club isn’t lauded – or even particularly well know – today?

With archive stories and the personal memories of Gary Corbitt, NYPC founder Ted’s son, we were able to start to piece together not only the history of the club, but also its legacy and impact.


Founded in 1936 in Harlem, NY by Joseph Yancey, Bob Douglas and William Culbreath, the Pioneers was a club for Black and Jewish men and boys. It’s foundation was at least in part a reaction to the racist and anti-semitic policies of the athletics clubs already established in New York, some of whom already had decades of history behind them.

Coach Yancey believed that through athletics, discipline, pride in their appearance and camaraderie, the young men living in Harlem – which was a very underprivileged part of the United States at the time – could rise above the poverty and prejudice. But it was a long, hard road.

In the 1930s racial segregation still existed in the southern parts of the U.S. In Europe Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were promoting their brand of nationalism which would ultimately lead to global conflict. And in Russia, Stalin launched a purge that became known as the Great Terror and resulted in the deaths of millions.

It was against this backdrop the Yancey and his co-founders created a club with a simple but powerful creed;

“The Pioneer Club, a club of gentlemen and athletes. This does not signify mere outward refinement. It speaks of a refined and noble mind, to which anything dishonourable, mean or impure is abhorrent and unworthy”

Within a short time after setting up the club, the athletes started achieving nationwide fame by winning at all sorts of distances from the 100 yards to the marathon. And that was in spite of facing racism that saw black members of the team being refused service at restaurants on route to compete in athletics meets.

The story of how the New York Pioneer Club and it’s members pushed back against racism – at one point being involved in an anti-racism protest that was seen around the world by millions of people – and went on to define an aspect of road racing that we take for granted today, is told in the latest edition of Like the Wind.

And it begs the question – how can an organisation that did so much in the face of so much opposition be hardly recognised today?

We hope that by telling the story we can contribute to an understanding of what the Pioneers stood for and what they achieved. Because their legacy touches almost every running lacing up and getting out of the door today.


You can order a copy of LtW#25 to read the full story of the New York Pioneer Club.

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