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"A bit of a novelty in those days." Who was the first Afro-American to break four minutes for the mile?

 “A bit of a novelty in those days”.

Who was the first Afro-American

to break  four minutes for the mile?

There are now more than 1,500 sub-four-minute milers, and so the names of Reggie McAfee and Tommy Fulton are just a couple among many which don’t immediately strike a chord. Yet within a lapse of time of only a few weeks 45 years ago they made a significant contribution to miling history. McAfee and Fulton were both Afro-Americans, and McAfee is the first US-born Afro-American to have broken four minutes for the mile, with 3:59.3 on 21 April 1973, which he improved to 3:57.8 three weeks later, and this latter time was equaled by Fulton in the most unlikely circumstances on 25 May.

The term “US-born” is not lightly chosen because McAfee could be said to have been preceded by a couple of years. In 1971 Byron Dyce had run 3:59.6, later improving to 3:57.34 in 1974, and his identity will probably be rather more familiar to readers as he represented his native Jamaica at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and the 1970 Commonwealth Games. His parents had become naturalised US citizens in 1954 when he was six years old and he had dual nationality from then on. 

McAfee was a student at the University of North Carolina and was 3rd in the World University Games 1500 metres later in 1973 to Frank Clement, of Great Britain, and Tony Waldrop, also of the USA and at the same university as McAfee. McAfee had originated from Cincinnati, Ohio, and had set a city high-school mile record of 4:08.0 in 1969 which would survive for 32 years. He retained his interest in the sport after earning his living as a Xerox salesman by setting up in his 60s a non-profit-making organisation for youngsters in Charlotte, North Carolina, entitled “Cross Country For Youth” which earned national recognition.   

Fulton’s competitive career was one of the most remarkable in history. To say he had an obsessive hunger for racing is under-stating the case, at the very least!  He ran his fastest mile in the sixth of eight races he contested over three successive evenings, Wednesday to Friday, 23-24-25 May 1973, at the National Association of Inter-Collegiate Athletics (NAIA) meet, at Arkadelphia, Arkansas, as follows:

Wednesday 23 May

7.45 p.m. (1) 1 mile heat, 4:08.0.

9.20 p.m. (1) 880 yards heat, 1:50.0.

10.30 p.m. (1) 3 miles heat, 13:58.2.

Thursday 24 May

8;40 p.m. (1) 880 yards semi-final, 1:50.2

9:20 p.m. (1) 3 miles, 13:33.4

Friday 25 May

7:45 p.m. (1) 1 mile, 3:57.8. Bob Maplestone (GB) was 2nd in 3:58.5.

8:45 p.m. (2=) 880 yards, 1:48.8. Mike Boit (Kenya) was the winner in 1:47.7.

9.15 p.m. (2) 6 miles, 28:55.0.


This was by no means the only occasion that Fulton raced prolifically on behalf of Texas Southern University, and his training was equally extravagant. He ran 12 miles on the university track each morning at 5:30 a.m., averaging between 5:00 and 5:30 per mile, and then did a combination of 660s, 220s and 110s every evening as fast as he could, with no more than two minutes rest between each. Fulton had reached the final of the 800 metres at the 1972 US Olympic Trials and had led at the bell before fading to 8th place as Dave Wottle went on to win in a World-record-equalling 1:44.3. This “failure” spurred Fulton on to his Herculean efforts the next year and he had ambitions to qualify for the Games in 1976, but instead he was lured into the well-intended but short-lived International Track Association professional series of meetings – along with, incidentally, the likes of Jim Ryun, Kip Keino, Lee Evans and Bob Seagren.


The full story of Fulton’s phenomenal achievements was told in “Track & Field News” in June 1973 by one of the most assiduous of US track writers, Jon Hendershott, and is now thankfully preserved on the website. It’s a fitting tribute to Fulton and also to the writer, who died earlier this year at the age of 71.      


As is always the case when considering sub-four-minute miling, there are numerous instances of athletes who could have achieved as much but lacked the opportunity to do so. Certainly, the first sub-four by an Afro-American ought to have been accomplished by at least 1964. That year Ben Tucker, of San Jose State University, ran 3:40.8 for 1500 metres, which is worth close to 3:58 for the mile, but his only mile races of note happened to be at the English AAA Championships at the White City Stadium, in London, on 10-11 July. The heats on the Friday evening were won in succession by Britain’s Alan Simpson, Peter Keeling and Mike Wiggs and by Tucker himself, with the principal non-qualifier being Poland’s European Championships 1500 metres silver-medallist, Witold Baran.


One of those bizarre AAA Championships mile finals


The AAA Championships mile finals of that era tended to be tactical affairs no less than is the case more than half-a-century later, and the 1964 final on the Saturday afternoon was typical. Another Briton, Andy Green, who had set a personal best of 4:03.3 in the heats, led by 15 yards at the bell in 3:00.8 but was then passed by Wiggs and slowed to a walk, allowing Simpson to come through for an unexpected win (as Simpson readily admitted afterwards) in 4:01.1, with Tucker 3rd in 4:02.3. There’s a neat coincidence here because Byron Dyce, who precedes Reggie McAfee as the first Afro-American sub-four-minute miler in the broadest sense of the term, would also have a 3rd place in a AAA final, at 800 metres 10 years later when Steve Ovett was the winner.


Dyce, now aged 70, is Professor of Mathematics at Santa Fe College, in Gainesville, Florida, and it is only this year, in correspondence with him on behalf of, that his dual qualification for Jamaica and the USA has come to light more than four decades after he was at his competitive peak!.


The historical perspective of Afro-American milers – at least in the context of the continent of the Americas, rather than just the USA – begins with a man who can justifiably be described as the past-master of achieving 3rd places. He is Phil Edwards, who between 1928 and 1936 amassed five Olympic bronze medals at 4 x 400 metres, 800 metres and 1500 metres, and – as is the case with Byron Dyce – has a claim to differing nationalities. He was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) but represented Canada throughout his Olympic career, and seemingly  for no better reason than that the Canadian authorities enterprisingly invited him to do so. He did attend McGill University, in Toronto in pursuit of his studies to become a doctor specialising in tropical diseases, but he also went to New York University, and the US AAU might just as readily have claimed him for their own!


In a rare (and maybe one and only) mile outing, Edwards ran 4:21.0 indoors in 1929, which might have historical value as the fastest performance to that date by a black athlete, but his best 1500 metres was intrinsically far superior. This was 3:50.4 for 5th place in the 1936 Olympic final, and so he would have been capable of a mile in under 4:09, given the chance, and it would be some years before any Afro-American could aspire to that standard. Again, if circumstances had been different, it might have happened much sooner than it actually did, but two young Afro-Americans of exceptional talent were denied their true destiny by the advent of war. They were Frank Dixon and Rudy Simms.


The emergence of the fastest Afro-American miler – but unremarked by historians


Frank Dixon was a student at New York University and had a short but sensational career after leaving high school, starting by winning the AAU cross-country title in 1942 and then defeating the leading US miler, Gil Dodds, 4:09.6 to 4:09.9, for the AAU indoor title in New York on 27 February 1943. This was no fluke on Dixon’s part as he also had times of 4:10.0 and 4:10.6 for 3rd places behind Dodds and Earl Mitchell and a win over Mitchell in 4:11.4 that winter. He then went into the army, serving as a Staff-Sergeant in the Pacific theatre of war, and completed his university graduation in 1948. He worked in community education centres and became assistant principal of a Brooklyn public school. He died in December 1973 at the age of 55, survived by his wife and five children.


In their immensely detailed study, “The Milers”, published in 1985, Cordner Nelson (co-founder with his brother, Bert, of “Track & Field News”) and Roberto Quercetani make no direct reference to the emergence of Afro-American runners, but they were clearly aware of the significance of the matter. They refer to Frank Dixon as “an amazing Negro freshman at NYU” – acceptable terminology when they were writing – and summarise his indoor season of 1943. They also note that Dixon had run 4:14.1 indoors in March 1942 while still at high school, but without any explanatory comment of the relevance of such a time. 


In another US publication of great value in relation to the history of the sport, “Modern Track and Field”, published in 1953, the author, J. Kenneth Doherty, who had been a fine all-round athlete and was an eminent coach, usefully collated 22 progressive US high-school mile performances from 1914 onwards, but these would all seem to have been achieved outdoors and there is no mention of Dixon, though he is more than six seconds faster than anyone else on the list.  


Rudolph Simms broke the US scholastic record for the mile which had stood for 18 years when he ran 4:18.2 in an AAU open meet at Randall’s Island, New York, on 5 June 1943 while attending De Witt Clinton High School in New York, and this is another performances which has gone un-noticed by J. Kenneth Doherty.  Simms became a member of the New York Pioneer Club, which had been founded in 1936 by three Afro-American entrepreneurs, including the famed future coach, Joe Yancey, and also went to New York University and served in the army before reappearing briefly in 1945, running a 4:15.1 indoor mile, but no more was heard from him thereafter on the track. In 1971 a man of the same name was shot dead by a police officer during racial disturbances in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York.


Both Dixon and Simms are given full credit for their achievements in a comprehensive and profusely illustrated history of high-school track and field in New York City published in 2017 by the New York Armory Foundation and edited by Jack Pfeifer. Added interesting information provided by Pfeifer is that Dixon ran a track three miles in 15:07.2 in May 1940 when he may well have been no more than 17 years old.


Simms’s high-school record lasted until 1954, when it was broken by Charles Jones with a time of 4:17.6. Jones had apparently shown precocious promise by running a 4:35 mile at the age of 13 in his street shoes, but he was never to become a front-rank miler (a best of 4:06.5 in 1961). He made his mark instead at the steeplechase. Better known as “Deacon” Jones (nicknamed after a prominent preacher of that era), he ran in the finals of both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, placing 9th and 7th,, and he still holds the University of Iowa record for the event after 62 years!  He had been the first Afro-American winner of the National collegiate (NCAA) cross-country title in 1955 and was Pan-American Games silver-medallist in the steeplechase in 1959. He spent 27 years as director of financial aid for the City College of Chicago and died in 2007 at the age of 73.


Two Afro-Americans qualify for the 1956 Olympic 1500 metres


It should be mentioned in passing that the greatest of all half-milers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mal Whitfield, took an interest in the mile in his latter career, and even claimed that his ambition was to break four minutes, but he was never a serious candidate to do so, with a best conventional time of 4:12.6, plus 4:06.8 on the practically straight boardwalk promenade at Atlantic City in 1953. Having won the Olympic 800 metres in 1948 and 1952, Whitfield tried again for a place at that distance in 1956 but was beaten in the “sudden death” US Olympic Trials by the immensely powerful trio of Courtney, Sowell and Spurrier. Had Whitfield directed his training towards 1500 metres, he might well have qualified for the team. Two other Afro-Americans did so – Jerome Walters and Ted Wheeler.


Neither of them survived the heats in Melbourne, both finishing 8th, but then nor did the third US runner, Don Bowden, and he was to become his country’s first sub-four-minute miler  some six months or so later. Like “Deacon” Jones, Ted Wheeler was a student at the University of Iowa but had been born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in later life he was to say pointedly that “Iowa was the only place a black distance-runner could go back then”. He was exceptionally tall for his favoured event at 6ft 3½in (1.03m) and had an impressive range of performances from 48.6 for 440 yards to 9:16.0 for two miles. His fastest mile time was 4:04.7 in 1956, which could be rightly claimed as an “Afro-American record”, and he later served as head track coach at Iowa for 18 years, but it was Walters who was to bring the sub-four-minute mile into proper focus.


He had already made a minor mark in miling history by coming close to the US scholastic record with 4:21.4 while at Compton High School, in California, in 1948, and he then achieved something of far greater significance in 1956 by becoming the first Afro-American to win a US national title at 1500 metres or the mile in 80 years! In 1958 at the AAU Championships he set a personal best 4:03.9 behind Herb Elliott in the heats and then ran 4:01.7 for 5th place in the next day’s final won by Elliott in 3:57.9. It is worth noting that the highest-ranking Kenyan that year (in fact, the only Kenyan in the World’s top 100 at either 1500 metres or the mile) was Nyandika Maiyoro, who ran 4:09.6 at the AAA Championships in London. Walters, like Wheeler, came from the deep South, born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and he died in 1998, aged 67.


In 1963 another Afro-American, Harry McCalla, of Fullerton College, in California, ran 4:01.5 and then came desperately close to becoming the first Afro-American sub-four-minute miler in 1967, though this achievement largely passed unremarked at the time. McCalla was timed in 4:00.8 in finishing 9th in the race at Bakersfield, California, on 23 June 1967 in which Jim Ryun set a World record of 3:51.1. The next year McCalla ran a 2:34:30 marathon in Los Angeles which might just qualify as another Afro-American record.


There’s an entertaining sound-only interview from 2012 to be found on YouTube of McCalla at the age of 70 recalling his competitive career. With masterly understatement, he says, “There weren’t too many Afro-American middle-distance runners around then. I was a bit of a novelty in those days”.         


Progressive best Afro-American mile performances, 1942 to 1982

4:14.1i  (1) Frank Dixon, New York, 25 March 1942

4:10.6i  (3) Dixon, New York, 6 February 1943

4:09.6i  (1) Dixon, New York, 27 February 1943

4:07.5i  (1) Ted Wheeler, Chicago, 24 March 1956

4:04.7   (5) Wheeler, Compton, California, 1 June 1956 

4:03.9   (2) Jerome Walters, Bakersfield, California, 20 June 1958.

4:01.7   (5) Walters, Bakersfield, California, 21 June 1958

4:01.5   (2) Harry McCalla, Palo Alto, California, 13 April 1963

4:00.8   (9) McCalla, Bakersfield, California, 23 June 1967

3:59.6   (3) Byron Dyce, Philadelphia, 16 May 1971

3:59.3   (2) Reggie McAfee, Raleigh, North Carolina, 21April 1973

3:57.8   (2) McAfee, Durham, North Carolina, 12 May 1973

3:57.8   (1) Tommy Fulton, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, 25 May 1973

3:57.34 (5) Dyce, Stockholm, 1 July 1974

3:55.0   (2) Dennis Fikes, Philadelphia, 27 April 1975

3:54.10 (1) Sydney Maree, Eugene, Oregon, 5 June 1982

3:52.86 (1) Maree, Villanova, Pennsylvania, 12 June 1982

3:48.85 (2) Maree, Oslo, 26 June 1982

Note: Maree, born in South Africa, became a US citizen in 1982. He had run 3:48.83 in 1981.


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