Local Black History – Panel 10 – Sports

Year

2023

Artist

Keith Goodson

Location

Baker Center School
311 E. Charlotte Avenue

Size

104′ w x 8.5′ h

Mural Creation Sponsors

2023:

Sushila Cherian
In Memory of Dr. JV Cherian

Congregational United Church of Christ

Kelly & Pete Gaylord

The Patterson Foundation

Saint Mary Baptist Church
In Memory of Pastor Isaac Thomas Jr

Community Foundation of Sarasota County

Shively Charitable Foundation
Lt. Col. Scot & Jill Shively

Penny Stiffler

The Community

Panel 10 – Sports

Thomas Jefferson Fulton was born in Washington D.C. on October 31, 1951. He was raised in Punta Gorda and attended Baker Academy and then Charlotte High School. The story goes that his running ability was first noticed when he was forced to run laps for being late to PE class.

Tommy was said to run everywhere, including daily runs from Punta Gorda to North Port and sometimes Englewood beach. He was a member of the cross-country and track and field teams at Charlotte High for three years. Tommy won the cross-country state title in 1968, with a time of 2 miles in 10 minutes 20 seconds. Back then they ran 2 miles instead of 3 miles run today (was changed in 1975).

Tommy Fulton – Tarpon Hall of Fame

On the high school track, he won the 2-mile race in 1969 with a time of 9 minutes 33 seconds and the 1-mile race in a time of 4 minutes 16 seconds, becoming Charlotte High’s second three-time state champion. Both records stood the test of time with his 1-mile record not broken until 2011 after 42 years, and his 2-mile record lasting 47 years when it was broken in 2016, according to Brian Nolan, Athletic Director Charlotte High School. Mr. Nolan said he “had the good fortune of meeting Tommy on the day he was inducted into the Charlotte High School Athletic Hall of Fame.” Nolan went on to say, “a finer man you would never meet, extremely humble and thankful.”

Upon graduation, Tommy was accepted to Texas Southern University, a small NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) school in Houston, Texas, on full scholarship.

In 1972, he competed in the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Despite losing his shoe in the semifinals of the 1-mile race, he still reached the finals. He failed to make the Olympic team placing 8th. This motivated him to an even higher level of determination.

After returning to the Texas campus, Tommy started running 12 miles on the university track each morning at 5:30am, averaging between 5 and 5.5 minutes per mile. Then he would return each evening to do combinations of 660, 220 and 110 speed intervals taking no more than two minutes rest in between.

At the 1973 NAIA national meet in Arkansas, Tommy did what is considered by some distance running historians as one of the most remarkable individual performances in the history of the sport. In a span of just 51 hours on May 23-25, 1973, Fulton ran eight races — counting prelims and finals — that covered a total of 15 miles. He won six of those races and finished second twice, with little recovery time between races.

He ran the mile in 3:57.8, tying Reggie McAfee’s record thirteen days earlier, becoming the second fastest Black man in the United States at the time. It was the first sub four-minute mile ever run in the state of Arkansas and an NAIA record.

He had ambitions to quality for the 1976 Olympics but instead was lured into the well-intended but short-lived professional International Track Association as a professional athlete upon graduation. Tommy went on to compete for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in Munich, Germany in July 1973 where he was the first Black male to break the 4-minute mile (3:41.48 a personal best). He also went on to compete in Africa, Russia, and several other countries. Unfortunately, since he had become a professional athlete, he was banned from future Olympics.

Tommy was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, in 1983. He worked at Conoco Phillips Oil in Houston, where he raised a family while volunteering his time to work with youth in track and field. He eventually retired in Florida. He died on August 8, 2013, at the age of 61.

“I’ve had a good life. There’s only one thing I didn’t accomplish, I wanted to race the space shuttle. That’s the only thing faster than me.” – Tommy Fulton

This panel also pays tribute to the Punta Gorda Negro baseball team and the Black community’s baseball field that once stood where the Baker Center School is today at the corner of Charlotte and Cochran (now MLK Boulevard).

The baseball field had wooden bleachers and is said to hold 500-600 people. The Punta Gorda Black players hosted other teams up and down the southwest coast of Florida. Games were played on Sunday afternoons around four o’clock. Peanuts and Cokes were sold at the games, and sometimes fish fry sandwiches wrapped in newspaper with the grease soaking through the paper. It was a means of recreation and entertainment for the Black men in the community.

Here is a photo from an old video from the 1950’s and 60’s showing the players and the field: