Black History: Special Delivery!!
The game of tennis dates back to the medieval era. The more modern form of lawn tennis that is played today was patented by Walter C. Wingfield, in Great Britain in 1874; with the first Wimbledon tournament being played in 1877. In the United States, the first tennis court was built in 1876. Some historically black colleges (HBCU’s) began offering tennis to its students beginning in the 1890’s. African American tennis players began playing in invitational tournaments at Philadelphia’s Chautauqua Tennis Club in 1898. When the United States Lawn Tennis Association( (USLTA) formally banned blacks from playing in its tournaments a group of African American men met to begin planning for an organization that would allow blacks to compete in the sport competitively. The group initially met on November 30, 1916. The American Tennis Association (ATA) was officially launched, and held its first national championships in August 2017. The championships consisted of three events, (men’s and women’s singles and men’s doubles) at Druid Park in Baltimore, MD.
As more competitions were held in the south, ATA officials knew that large numbers of blacks would not be able to find lodging in hotels. Early on, ATA National Championships were held at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) including Hampton, Morehouse, Central State, and Lincoln University. These schools were able to provide tennis courts for the matches as well as lodging for attendees. The ATA national championships was a much-anticipated social event, in the communities, where it was held. Along with the tennis matches, there were also dances, fashion shows and other events held.
In 1950, Althea Gibson, an African American tennis champion had her application accepted to the United States Lawn Tennis Association making her the first African American to compete in the U.S. National Championships. Segregation of the USLTA was finally broken with the help of Alice Marble, a white female tennis champion. She openly supported Althea Gibson and African American tennis champion to be accepted into the USLTA. Edward Niles was also another white USLTA member who supported desegregation of the sport. In 1950, the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s accepted Althea Gibson’s application to become the first Black to ever compete in the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills. In 1952, Reginal Weir and George Steward were the first African American men to compete at the U.S. Open. Althea Gibson dominated the sport of tennis from 1956-1958. The ATA worked diligently to integrate the sport and eventually entered into an agreement that allowed ATA champions to receive a wild card entry into the U.S. Open. The ATA has mentored and coached several of the top players and coaches in the world. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were first African American tennis players to be ranked No. 1 in the world and to win grand slam titles. Other African American tennis players that were trained through ATA include Zina Garrison, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil, Chandra Rubin, Katrina Adams, and Mali Vai Washington.
The ATA also created a junior development program to help train up and coming African American tennis players. Initially, training was held at the home of Dr. Walter Johnson in Lynchburg, VA during summers. Talented youth from across the country would come to train at his home, and, also play in tournaments. Tennis great, Arthur Ashe was one of these youth. Ashe would go on to become a dominating force in the sport of tennis. He used the platform of tennis to advocate for an end to racial injustice in the U.S. In addition, Ashe made several trips to South Africa to advocate for an end to apartheid. He was also a staunch advocate for education and encouraged youth to go to college.
The ATA is still actively training youth and holding tennis championships. ATA celebrated its 100 National Championship in 2017. Players from 8 to 80 are able to compete in over 50 competitive categories. .