A Rich History: Celebrating Black History Month through Mid-Atlantic’s Tennis Stories

As a sport, tennis has a long and vibrant history in African-American communities across the country. The Mid-Atlantic, though, has an especially unique role historically in growing the sport among the black community and with notable individuals and organizations creating opportunities for those players. You probably know some of this history – like Grand Slam champion Arthur Ashe learning the game in his hometown of Richmond – but there are a number of lesser-known stories that make up the Mid-Atlantic’s rich history of tennis in the African-American community. To celebrate Black History Month, here is an overview of some of Mid-Atlantic’s own stories:

The American Tennis Association’s Founding: Tennis quickly gained substantial popularity within the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a number of black tennis clubs had already been created across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. When the USLTA disallowed black players from participating in tournaments, the Association Tennis Club of DC and Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore decided it was time to create a national organization. On Nov. 30, 1916, representatives from those organizations and more than a dozen of other groups formed the American Tennis Association (ATA), which became the leading African-American tennis association in the US. Without the leadership from these two organizations, more valuable time would have passed before the creation of this important unifying body.

Dr. Whirlwind Johnson Created Opportunities for Youth Players from his Home in Lynchburg: Today, Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson is largely remembered for coaching the first two black Grand Slam champions – Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe – at his home in Lynchburg, Va. Dr. Johnson’s impact was so much more than coaching a select few players, though. In 1951, he held his first junior development program, a summer camp that brought together some of the top African-American juniors in Lynchburg for intensive training and travel to tournaments across the country.

Whirlwind Johnson

Dr. Whirlwind Johnson (third from left) has been called the “Godfather of Black Tennis” (Photo: Whirlwind Johnson Foundation)

This initiative, funded by Dr. Johnson himself, was one of the first programs that gave black children access to high-level training and opened the door for them to follow in Althea Gibson’s footsteps as a champion tennis player. In 1953, Arthur Ashe spent his first summer with Dr. Johnson, which changed the face of American tennis forever, but over the next two decades hundreds of kids experienced Dr. Johnson’s work and positive impact. By traveling to a number of cities and states, these kids also helped fully integrate the game on the local level, shortly after Gibson integrated the professional game in 1950. The Whirlwind Johnson Foundation, led by Dr. Johnson’s grandson Lange, is currently working to restore the historic court in Lynchburg with support from the USTA Foundation.

Arthur Ashe’s Return to Richmond: In 1963, Arthur Ashe became the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team. Five years later he returned to his hometown of Richmond for a match that was unique in a more personal way: For the first time in his life, he was allowed to play on the Byrd Park tennis courts. Growing up in a segregated city, Ashe and other black players weren’t allowed on those courts. Years later, when the Richmond Tennis Association and other tennis advocates helped bring a Davis Cup tie to their city, it was Arthur Ashe representing the United States and leading a 5-0 victory for his team.

Arthur Ashe Davis Cup

Arthur Ashe with the USA Davis Cup team

DC’s Sibling Duo that Dominated the Sport: Long before the Williams sisters became the face of American tennis, Margaret and Roumania Peters, sisters from Washington, DC, were taking the ATA tour by storm and making headlines for themselves. The duo was a force to be reckoned with in doubles, as the Peters sisters won the ATA Doubles Championship 15 times in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. During these decades, ATA tournaments were attracting an extremely high level of players, but it was the Peters sisters who stood out and dominated the game, attracting crowds of spectators. In 1942, Gene Kelly stopped by Rose Park in Washington to play with the sisters; their fame was not to be questioned. In 2003, Margaret and Roumania Peters were inducted into the USTA Mid-Atlantic Hall of Fame for their achievements.

In 1946, Roumania Peters bested a young Althea Gibson in the ATA national championship. Dr. Whirlwind Johnson had traveled from Lynchburg to watch the match that day and saw something special in Gibson, but he also realized she needed more formal training to improve her game. It was after that match that he started coaching Gibson, eventually leading to the desegregation of American tennis four years later and five Grand Slam titles.

Hampton University 1989

Hampton University’s NCAA Division II Champions in 1989 (Photo: Hampton University News)

Hampton University’s Incomparable Tennis History: Led by legendary coach Dr. Robert Screen, Hampton University men’s team won the Division II NCAA title in 1976 and 1989 and remains the only Historically Black College or University to win an NCAA tennis championship. In addition to those two national championships, Hampton also won 22 straight CIAA titles and 11 straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles – a trophy case that would rival any across the country.


Celebrating 100 Years of ATA Chapionships in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park: After its founding in 1916, the ATA held its first national championship the following year at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, pictured below. A century later, the organization celebrated the 100th anniversary of the momentous event by bringing the championship back to Druid Hill Park. Nearly 700 players traveled from near and far to participate in the tournament and celebrate ATA and the vibrant history of tennis in the black community.

Druid Hill Park

Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, home of the 2017 ATA National Championship.

The USTA Mid-Atlantic Section promotes a message of acceptance, respect, and inclusion. We aim to leverage our members’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives to remove barriers to play and thereby increase participation and expand opportunities that will promote community-level engagement throughout the Section. We celebrate and honor this message, especially during Black History Month, as well as every month of the year.

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