In 1979, there were only a handful of African-American runners in southwest Atlanta. However, two of them, the late Jerry McClain and Jim Lemon worked for federal agencies and saw each other occasionally at a downtown health spa. They began running together at the old Arlington School Track, and on Saturdays through the neighborhoods as they prepared for the WSB 5K Fun Run and the Peachtree 10K Road Race. During their runs through the Camp Creek, Fairburn Road and Welcome All Park areas, they encountered a few other runners. They also noted the lack of an organized running organization on the southside and that few African-Americans participated in road races. Two of the runners occasionally encountered by Jerry and Jim, Gary Jenkins and Julius “Gunner” Harrison, later joined them in their informal practice sessions and training runs for the Peachtree Road Race. Three of the four won tee shirts in the Peachtree and afterwards decided to celebrate over Pina Coladas. Their conversation centered on how to increase the number of runners on the southside and create a formal organization.
Six other men who were recruited at health spas, road races and tracks soon joined the small group regularly. After the Saturday morning runs, they shared experiences and talked about the value of running for losing weight and improving their health. Finally in December 1979, the ten regulars decided to formally organize. These members decided to call the club South Fulton Running Partners (SFRP). They wrote and adopted a charter and by-laws. Teal blue and white were chosen as the official colors. The club’s motto became “Running Partners Have More Fun”. A silhouette of two runners became the logo and was later modified (in the late 80s) by Arthur Wilson (a member with an industrial design background) to become two runners against a map of Georgia.
Word spread rapidly that the newly formed club was running on a regular basis, and others who saw them at the track or during one of their Saturday runs joined them. Letters and follow-up telephone calls were made to people who participated in the Saturday runs. Candidate members were required to participate in a minimum of three (3) consecutive Saturday morning runs.
Jerry McClain often remarked the SFRP was meant to be a running fraternity of not more than 35 members so that the members would get to know each other intimately. The club was also envisioned as a multi-dimensional organization designed to give runners an opportunity to measure themselves against others, and to strengthen relationships beyond running through social functions and civic activities. The concept of fellowship came to be highly valued. Several members who joined after 1980 have said that the camaraderie of the club and the opportunity to run on a consistent basis were the two major factors that made them join and remain members. The group remained all male until 1981 when Sharon Riley became the first female member. (As of 2009 nearly one-third of the club are female.)
One of the first activities undertaken by the group was a 7K road race in April 1980 with the proceeds to be given to an African-American charity. Among those considered were West Mental Health Center, Carrie Steele Pitts Home, and the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia. The Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia was selected and the SFRP tested its capability to organize a successful road race. The first venture was a valuable learning experience, attracting approximately 90 runners but club members had to make personal contributions to cover race costs and to insure a donation to the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia. In 1992, SFRP raised approximately $6,500.00 and was recognized at the Foundation’s banquet as the longest running community contributor to the Foundation. In 2003, nearly 1,000 runners and walkers participated in what has become on of the most anticipated and organized races in the metro Atlanta area. Over $300,000 has been raised , with proceeds benefiting a summer camp for children with sickle cell disease.
Since its inception, SFRP has developed several traditions that have strengthened the organization. In 1993, JT Franks proposed that members track their mileage over a year and that recognition be grated to members who run 500 or more miles. The highest number of miles recorded to date, over a period of one year, is 3,300, set in 1999 by Eva Davis. In 1998, at the invitation of the South DeKalb Striders, a few members traveled to Moulton, Alabama to participate in a race to commemorate its well-known, favorite son Jesse Owens. Since then the race has been an annual, weekend trip for the club. Newsletters have been intermittently produced since the club’s inception and in 1999 Jog Your Memory was awarded 2nd place in a national competition sponsored by the Road Runners Club of America thanks to the efforts of Iilonga Thandiwe and DeBorah Hargrove.
In 2000, general coordinator JT Franks proposed a retreat to assess the club’s status and to plan its future. The retreat was held on two separate days, and included participation by nearly all the active members. Among the ideas proposed and implemented was the creation of another membership category, “member emeritus”. This category was created for previously active, long time members who no longer participated but wished to continue their affiliation with the club. Jerry Gaither became the first Member Emeritus in 2000, followed by Al Dempsey in 2001 and Lee Jones Duvall in 2003.
By 2001, nearly all club business, including notification of club runs was done via the Internet and member coordinator, Al Thurman began the tradition of signing off his signature emails about club runs with the saying “see you in the circle.” This tradition coincided with DeBorah Hargrove initiating another tradition of circulating a small sculpture (depicting a circle of friends) to a different Partner each month, following the club’s alphabetized roster. The sculptor is presented at the monthly business meeting. In 2002, club by-laws were again revised to strengthen its use as a working document for the club.
2004 marked many great moments for South Fulton Running Partners. The 25th annual sickle cell race/walk attracted a record number of walkers and runners – 1,3000, enabling the Partners to contribute approximately $38,000 to the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia.
Another tradition was started by Greg Hale with the inception of the first annual Greg Hale Duathalon. The inaugural event was held on Sunday, May 30, 2004 at Welcome All Park and included Al Thurman, Athon Barron, Charlotte Simmons, Don Webster, Iilonga Thandiwe, and Nthando Thandiwe, Iilonga’s oldest son. But most importantly, 2004 marks 25 years of running and fitness for the club. An estimated 90 individuals have called themselves Running Partners since 1979. At least 13 current active members have been active for over 20 years as of 2006. In addition to Jim Lemon, they include Athon Barron, J.T. Franks, John Haywood, Bob Holmes, William Murray, Bill Stanley, Samuel Ball, Jimmy Hill, Jim Talley, Herb Waters, CW Wilson, and Bobby Sasberry.