It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
"The problem of the 20th century," the African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903, "is the problem of the color line." DuBois' prediction was more than prescient. We're well into the 21st century, and as anyone who follows the news today understands, that line is still very much with us. But what he couldn't have realized was how much the seemingly innocuous realm of sports would do to make the line just a little harder to see.
Every American learns the story of how Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. Many tennis fans are aware that Althea Gibson shattered barriers at the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills in 1950. But far fewer know that seven years before Robinson’s breakthrough, a decade before Gibson’s and 14 years before Brown v. Board of Education made school segregation illegal, black and white met across a net in the first high-level interracial tennis match, and one of the few interracial sporting events of any kind during that era of “separate but equal.”
On July 29, 1940, a crowd of more than 2,000 filled the bleachers at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club to capacity. The best white player in the United States, Don Budge, traveled to Harlem to face the best black player, Jimmy McDaniel, in an exhibition staged by Budge’s racquet company, Wilson Sporting Goods. According to tennis journalist Doug Smith, those who couldn’t get in “watched from fire escapes and from windows in surrounding buildings. Those unable to see listened to the score, which was announced on a public address system.” This was, as Smith wrote, a major event in the black community.
What those spectators saw and heard was a mismatch. Two years earlier, Budge had won the calendar-year Grand Slam and was still the world’s best player. McDaniel was the champion of the American Tennis Association, the game’s equivalent of baseball’s Negro Leagues, but he had never had the opportunity to play at the sport’s most famous venues or against its toughest competition.
To no one’s shock, Budge won, 6–1, 6–2. As Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune wrote in his recap, “It’s not quite fair to McDaniel or Negro tennis in general to judge by this one match. It must be remembered that he was playing before his own people as their champion against a man nobody in the world can beat.”
Budge echoed those thoughts afterward. “Jimmy is a very good player,” he said. “I’d say he’d rank in the first 10 of our white players. And with some more practice against players like me, maybe some day he could beat all of them.”
The fact that McDaniel, who double-faulted 13 times, was more than a little nervous when he faced Budge wasn’t a surprise. And while it may seem odd to us now, neither was the fact that tennis’ color barrier was unofficially broken in Harlem, rather than across the river at Forest Hills, or across the pond at Wimbledon.
In those days, the now-vanished Cosmopolitan Tennis Club served as a headquarters of the American Tennis Association. While the mission of the ATA, which had been formed 24 years earlier, was to promote tennis among blacks, it had never excluded other races. Perhaps it was easier in those days for the ATA’s founders to imagine white players like Budge joining them—and thus forming a truly “American” tennis community, as their organization’s name implied—than it was to believe that blacks would ever find their way into the exclusive clubs of the WASP elite where the sport had been played since its invention in England in 1873.
Yet the group of men that gathered in Washington, D.C., on Thanksgiving Day, 1916, to found the ATA was an elite of its own. Black doctors, teachers and businessmen from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Kansas City and D.C. pledged to, among other objectives, stimulate interest in the game among African-Americans, encourage the development of new black tennis clubs and hold a national tournament. Dr. Harry S. McCard of Baltimore was elected the first president, and the first ATA Championships were held in the same city, at Druid Hill Park, the following August.
While this was the beginning of the ATA, the meeting was also the culmination of two decades of steady growth for the sport among the black middle class. The first interstate black tennis tournament was played in 1898; by 1916, there were 58 black tennis clubs, mostly in the Northeast. The black middle class, according to Smith, “mimicked the practices of wealthy whites, including their mannerisms, habits, and leisure activities. If tennis tournaments provided wealthy whites with special enjoyment and camaraderie, then surely they would do as much for wealthy blacks.”
Tennis has been an aspirational sport and a marker of middle-class prestige throughout its history, but for blacks in the early 20th century, the game and the status it represented may have meant even more.
“You have to remember that in 1915, it was only 50 years after the end of the Civil War,” says Robert Davis, a former player and friend of Arthur Ashe who runs the website Black Tennis History. “To have a black middle class establishment that could form a tennis organization in that amount of time was a tremendous transformation. It has been 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement, and we haven’t seen anything like that kind of change in the years since.”
Tennis’ popularity among blacks continued to increase through the 1920s, until the ATA’s clubs could no longer accommodate all of the players in its tournaments. To expand, the organization strengthened its connections with historically black colleges like Lincoln University, Hampton Institute, Morehouse College and Tuskegee Institute. The alliance was mutually beneficial.
“The ATA needed more tennis courts and sites that could provide more housing space,” Smith wrote. “The black colleges desired the affiliation with ATA members, wealthy and well-respected professionals, who might provide additional funding.”
By decade’s end, the ATA’s system had begun to produce a series of dominant champions. While they would never test their skills against the legendary white players of the day, their records were nearly as impressive in the parallel universe of African-American tennis.
Dr. Reginald Weir, a physician from New York, was the first player to win the ATA national title three years running, from 1931 to 1933. He was known as the “Black Bill Tilden,” and played with modern, semi-Western grips.
If Weir was the ATA’s version of Tilden, Ora May Washington was its Helen Wills Moody. The graceful Washington won eight national women’s championships between 1929 and 1937, and was undefeated in ATA play for 12 years.
McDaniel, a Californian, won four ATA singles titles in the ’30s and ’40s, while in the ’50s Panama native George Stewart, a left-handed pioneer of topspin, won seven national tournaments. In 1952, he and Weir became the first black men to play the U.S. Nationals. And starting at age 15, New York’s Billy Davis won 11 national ATA titles.
All of these players helped set the standard that Gibson, who won 10 straight ATA national titles (1947 to 1956), and Ashe, who won two ATA titles in the 1960s, would meet and exceed. Gibson, a sharecropper’s daughter who moved to Harlem, would go on to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Ashe, who was banned from playing at white clubs and parks in his hometown of Richmond, VA, would win the first U.S. Open, in 1968, and Wimbledon in 1975.
How did, at a time when the United States wasn’t dominating the world game, the ATA produce two of its greatest champions? It’s a testament to the vision of the organization’s most important figure, and one of the sport’s unsung heroes, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. A 2009 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Johnson coached both Gibson and Ashe. In the process, Johnson, in between his medical rounds, pioneered the concept of the tennis academy when he began the ATA’s Junior Development Program on his backyard court in Lynchburg, VA.
It was there that he housed, fed and taught generations of talented young black players both the skills needed to succeed on court, and the demeanor he felt was necessary to succeed when they crossed over and played white-run tournaments. Johnson’s goal was not just to develop a great black champion, but to develop one—or, it would turn out, two—who could break down the game’s color barrier. That meant, above all, producing a player with a set of manners and a code of sportsmanship that were beyond reproach. At the same time that Martin Luther King was preaching non-violence in the South, Johnson was preaching non-confrontation on tennis courts. While their campaigns would seem quixotic at times, each would find success.
“Never question a line call, never confront anyone on a tennis court,” is how Davis, a student of Johnson’s in the ’50s and ’60s, describes his mentor’s philosophy. “If one of us was to challenge a player, [officials at white tournaments] might say, ‘See, this is why we don’t let them in.’”
“Court ethics meant more than just extending common courtesy and sportsmanship,” wrote Smith, in Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis, his 2004 biography of Johnson. “He insisted that balls hit close to the line be called in favor of the opponent, even if the call is incorrect.”
After helping Gibson integrate Forest Hills in 1950, Johnson quickly found a new battle to wage, and an even higher mountain to climb: Mentoring a black player who could win the National Interscholastic Championships, the all-white high school tournament that was held each year at the University of Virginia. It was one thing to integrate a tournament in New York, another to do it in the South. As a comparison, the National Football League’s first black players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, joined the league in 1946, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the first African-American, Nat Northington of the University of Kentucky, played in a Southeastern Conference football game.
Yet Johnson was adamant; he didn’t just want a black player to enter the event, he wanted one to win it.
“He was serious about what he was trying to accomplish,” Davis says. “Everyone who worked with him will tell you two things: He was a tough taskmaster, and it was one of the best experiences of their lives.”
“What made me maddest,” Johnson told Time two years before his death in 1971, “was this idea that colored athletes were only good as sprinters or strong boys, (who) couldn’t learn... finesse. And somewhere I read an article that said, flat out, there would never be a great Negro tennis player.”
Johnson’s faith was rewarded in the most unlikely and unprepossessing of forms, when a skinny 10-year-old named Arthur Ashe showed up on his doorstep. Ashe, it soon became apparent, was the perfect vessel both for Johnson’s ideas about decorum and his regimented brand of teaching.
“I never disobeyed my father,” Ashe once said, and he wouldn’t disobey Johnson, either. “I always did exactly what Dr. Johnson told me to do. Usually, his strategy was right.”
Eight years later, in 1961, Ashe would fulfill Johnson’s dream by winning the Interscholastics. It happened just in time, too. In 1960, after hosting the tournament for 14 years, the University of Virginia asked to have it moved elsewhere. The college, which was integrated, cited the financial burden, but a Sports Illustrated editorial asserted that people in the area “have been unhappy at the university’s role as a tournament host since Negroes began to appear regularly.”
In 1962, the Interscholastics left the south for Williamstown, MA. Ashe would soon move onto bigger things. Six years later, when he hoisted the champion’s trophy at the first U.S. Open, Dr. Johnson was watching, proudly and quietly, from a few feet away, out of the camera’s eye.
“He beamed,” Smith wrote of Johnson that day, “and shared vicariously in the success of the young man he had groomed daily for so many years, believing all the while that this moment would come.”
While Ashe would find success at the game’s highest levels, what he first loved about the ATA was its sense of camaraderie. This shy kid from Richmond never imagined that, as he traveled from tournament to tournament and state to state, he would find such a far-reaching community of black tennis players.
And despite the success of Johnson’s Junior Development Program, the ATA was not primarily in the business of producing champions. Rather, it did what its white counterparts in tennis had always done: It provided an upwardly mobile society for young people to join. With its link to black colleges, tennis became part of the middle-class educational experience. The ATA’s big tournaments weren’t just athletic tests; they were social occasions filled with dinners, parties and dances. During the ATA’s heyday, more than half of the students at black colleges played tennis.
“The ATA was founded for black people to network,” Davis says. “The championships were held at colleges, so you were introduced to those campuses. You stayed with other families, and there was a bond through that generosity. I still talk to players I knew 40 or 50 years ago.”
In that sense, Davis believes, something was lost as well as gained when the game was integrated.
“I think more black people play tennis today,” he says, “but there was a sense of family at an ATA tournament. I’d like to see more recognition of its history for young African-Americans to see. Baseball has done a much better job of recognizing its Negro Leagues.”
Yet the ATA, with roughly 2,000 current members, continues to thrive. As it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, there’s a push to reconnect with its roots in black colleges and reclaim its history as an example for a new generation. At the same time that the USTA is building a new home in Orlando, the ATA is planning its own, with a black tennis Hall of Fame, in Miramar, FL. The hope is to make the facility, scheduled for completion in 2018, a destination for college students and tennis-playing vacationers.
“We want it to be a complex based on tennis and black culture,” says Albert Tucker, an ATA member and Vice President of Multicultural Business Development with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I’m very excited about our new center,” says Dr. Franklyn Scott, a Philadelphia dentist who was elected ATA president five years ago. “We desperately need a place to call home, somewhere we can focus all of our energies.”
When he became president, Scott says he “saw a dying need to preserve the ATA’s rich heritage and make sure it stays viable.” While he’s satisfied that the organization is accomplishing that, he isn’t happy with the level of growth he sees in tennis in the African-American community.
“So many children play tennis for a minute,” Scott says, “but lack the finances to continue.”
The ATA’s relationship with the USTA is also central to its goals. The USTA, which elected its first African-American president, Katrina Adams, in 2014, has supported the ATA’s tournaments, its junior programs and the plans for its new home. In turn, the ATA has aided the USTA’s diversity efforts. “They reach out to the African-American player like no one else,” says D.A. Abrams, the USTA’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “So many great players have come from the ATA.”
DuBois said the problem of the 20th century was the color line. Perhaps part of the solution for U.S. tennis in the 21st century may come from erasing it. For a century, the ATA has helped break down barriers between races, piece by piece—there will be no more “black Bill Tildens," only black tennis champions. While the most prominent one today, Serena Williams, didn’t emerge from the ATA, she and others who will come after her stand on its shoulders.
A century after the ATA optimistically chose its name, it remains an integral part of the fully American tennis community it did so much to create.