Photo courtesy of Bonnie Logan

In 1968 Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open.  The first African American man to raise the trophy, it was a historic moment and a welcomed celebratory shift from a year plagued with political turmoil and tragic assassinations.  The first U.S. Open in what would come to be called the “Open Era,” it seems fitting that an African American player who began playing tennis at public courts would prevail in a country club sport on the dawn of its own seismic transition.

The Open Era enabled both amateur and professional players to compete for the Grand Slam titles.  It ushered in a domino effect of change that would impact the sport forever.  Tennis would become increasingly more lucrative.  Players could now earn a living and receive prize money and endorsements. Prior, amateurs who sustained a career in the sport had to have the funding to do so, limiting who might rise up the ranks of tennis, keeping tennis fairly male, fairly White and fairly elite. The Open Era would make possible the potential for women and non-Whites to move up the ranks, broadening the sport beyond the country club. Although the potential of the Open Era was great, it was not an immediate salve for African Americans pursuing the sport who continued to face the dilemmas of segregation and discrimination.

“We talk blithely of the good old days but although they did indeed have redeeming features that the modern age have lost, they were also great days for racists, snobs and blinkered buffoons.  That tennis should have been afflicted by people of that kind, of three-quarters of the way through what are known as the Swinging Sixties, made the sport something of an anachronism, and it was not until a brave man called Herman David, who was the Chairman of the All England Club at the time, forced the concept of Open Tennis on to the conservative die-hards of the ILTE that the game was hauled into something resembling the twentieth century”

Richard Evans, Open Tennis 1968-1989

The Arthur Ashe Oral History Project sheds light on this important time period.  The series’ interviews includes recollections of Ashe from his friends, family and associates spanning his entire life, but concerted attention was given to documenting his early years and finding contemporaries who could speak to those times.  A number of narrators were able to share what pursuing tennis was like for African Americans in the years before the Open Era, in the 50s and 60s.

“Being a little Black kid, growing up here, (Wilmington, NC), through segregation, Jim Crow laws as I mentioned, the world of tennis is a foreign object, it’s a foreign thing to Blacks in this town.  And even in our country during that time, in the 40s, in the 50s, and the 60s even, even in 2020, it’s not exactly a household name.  Now has it changed? No question about it.”

Lenward (Lenny) Simpson-AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

There were few places where young aspiring African American tennis players could develop their skills in the 50s and 60s. Due to segregation laws, most of the tennis clubs where junior players could practice explicitly or implicitly prohibited African Americans from participation.  Public courts were not fairly distributed in black neighborhoods or always accessible to Black players and there were few coaches available to train young African American juniors. The high price of the sport proved detrimental as well.  Yet there was a growing interest in tennis amongst an African American professional class.  They had the means and leisure time to pursue the sport and combated the limitations of segregation by building their own infrastructure.  There were courts at a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and there were tennis clubs that catered specifically to their needs.   But the most significant development was the founding of the American Tennis Association (ATA) in 1916, the oldest African American sports organization.  The ATA created a circuit of tournaments and provided the network, the socializing and the opportunity to compete that was wanted and needed.  For many Black players, and for Ashe, this Black tennis world created a nurturing environment in which to grow, develop and socialize free from the challenges of discrimination, yet if these players wanted to compete in the Grand Slam Titles, fully integrating the sport was the only way.

“The tournaments we played in down south, the people who ran the tournaments would get the HBCUs colleges to put us up, I’m sure they had to pay some fee, $5 or $10 dollars a night, but we would stay on their college campuses and play a lot of the time on their courts, so we didn’t have to go into this hotel thing.  You could stay at this hotel but not at that hotel.  But sometimes you did because sometimes you didn’t have an HBCU to put you up, so of course you had to get the Green Book.”

Ann Koger- AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

Photo courtesy of J. Maurice Hopkins

When Ashe started training for tennis in the early 50s, one of the only places where young African Americans with potential could train was at Dr. Robert Walter Johnson’s summer tennis camp in Lynchburg, Virginia. Many of the narrators in the oral history series also found themselves at his camp at some point in their childhood.  He was an African American physician who built a tennis court next to his home to help young players.  He yearned to identify a player who could break the color line.  For Dr. Johnson and other prominent African Americans who played, it was important to prove that their success and the expression of that success was equal to that of Whites.  He found a glimmer of hope in Althea Gibson after spotting her at an ATA match and invited her to train. She would go on to become the first African American to win a Grand Slam title in 1956.  Ashe came to the camp in 1953 at age nine.  Others too, such as Lenward (Lenny) Simpson, Bonnie Logan, Juan Farrow, and Bob Davis also found their way to the camp.

“The only thing that I felt was that I knew I wanted to win and win badly.  I was just concentrating and focusing on that.  I know that I didn’t see any Black people around.  I know that, that was kind of discouraging, not to see any Blacks at all.  The only ones I saw was in the kitchen or out maybe doing the grass or something like that, but nothing near the clubhouse or the tennis facility or no spectators that were Black.  And so you kinda felt alone, really, but you concentrated on, focused on the match, you know and winning.  Winning and representing my race, that’s what I was thinking about.  I’m pretty sure of that.” 

Bonnie Logan describing her first interracial match at age 12.-AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

Dr. Johnson knew that breaking the color line and succeeding at tennis would require more than just athletic ability.  It would also require a player with the right temperament to withstand the ruthlessness of racism and discrimination.  Ashe’s cool, calm demeanor alongside his skills made him an ideal candidate.

“In 1946 the NFL integrated, actually it re-integrated and they (Dr. Robert Walter Johnson and Dr. Hubert Eaton) thought whoa, there’s a domino.  Football is reintegrating again, baseball won’t be long for that, they integrated in 1947 . . .He (Dr. Johnson) made a promise to himself.  “I’m going to start working with kids.”  Because it made the most sense to get into tennis at that level, to start working with kids.  And if I start working with kids maybe we can develop somebody in a couple of years who can be fantastic and Ashe became that kid.”

Robert Johnson III (grandson of Dr. Johnson) -AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

Integrating junior tennis was an epic affair.  It meant strategizing a multi-layered onslaught of logistical and social injustices.  Although signs of progress were slowly starting emerge, i.e., Brown v. Board of Education, the integration of collegiate sports, and civil rights legislation, Jim Crow culture was deeply entrenched and the most ardent notions of desegregation had yet to significantly impact a sport married to country club real estate.  Dr. Johnson had to get approval ahead of time for his players to be allowed to play in tournaments where White players were not required to seek approval.  He had to cover expenses for his players who, without his support, would not have been able to compete in the junior circuit.  Traveling also proved difficult, especially in places steeped in legal segregation.  Dr. Johnson was escorting young African Americans throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic regions during a time when most African American relied on the Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly referred to as the Green Book,  to safely move from one place to another.  They often could not stay at any of the accommodations that were provided for tournament players due to segregation.  His players would often have to stay far from the tournament location, being put up by a network of supportive friends and family who recognized the importance of integration.  They would have to awake at early dawn to make it on time for the matches. They often could not use the nearby convenience stores to get nourishment and freshen up. Once arrived, the matches themselves held another set of challenges from comments and name calling from spectators to shifting rules to further limit the possibility of an upset by a Black player.

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Logan

“When I played my first US Open in 64’ at age 15, my parents couldn’t even see me come and play, at the US Open in Forest Hills, because Black people could not come to West Side Country Club.  My parents couldn’t come and see that unbelievable moment in my life”

Lenward (Lenny) Simpson-AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

Dr. Johnson employed a number of maneuvers to ensure his players had a fair chance to compete and integrate the game.  Much of this is shared in the interviews, but what was often talked about was the way in which he prepared them for those moments.  He trained his players to always remain calm and to not become reactionary when dealing with any of the unfair antics that were pulled on the court.  Ashe often recounted how he always played balls a foot in the line and if a ball came close to the line he would always give it to the other player, as he was trained, even if it was obviously his ball.  Black players always had to be very conscious about the way they represented the race. If they came off appearing too confident, too angry or too expressive, it would likely curtail future invitations for themselves and other black players.  Unlike the freedom White players had to debate, discount, and dispute calls, Black players had to maintain a smooth, calm demeanor when faced with controversial calls.

Photo courtesy of J. Maurice Hopkins

“Ashe was a great model to handle this requirement, he was patient, he was calm.  If he was feeling anything, any frustration, anger, whatever, I never saw it.  I never saw it.  He did talk about it.  He wished at some point he could have been like, more like Connors or McEnroe who were messing with umpires, talking to the crowd, breaking racquets, whatever it was, just allowing him to be himself as opposed to honoring this edict of you got to represent the race.  He had that on his shoulders”

Lange Johnson-AALF, Arthur Ashe Oral History Project

Although the sport slowly opened its doors to integration, it was still not a viable career for most working class players.  For most Black players investing in tennis was a stepping stone to college scholarships, where they may play on a collegiate team while preparing for a career elsewhere. But the Open Era, commenced by Ashe’s victory at Forest Hills, provided proof that Black tennis players could hold their own with the best players the sport had to offer.

Yolanda Hester

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The full interviews will be available online on the Center For Oral History Research site soon. We will announce when they are available. For more information on The Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund and The Center For Oral History Research, please visit their websites at: