American Tennis Association

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American Tennis Association

The American Tennis Association (ATA) is the oldest continuously operated noncollegiate black sports organization in the United Statesalthough it was not the first organization to offer opportunities for black tennis players. Sometime in the late nineteenth century (the date is uncertain), the Monumental Tennis Club, now called the Baltimore Tennis Club, had been formed to give blacks a venue in which to complete. Then in the spring of 1916 the ATA was formed by prominent African Americans in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to provide encouragement, information, and tournaments for black tennis players. The attendees at the organizational meeting were Henry Freeman, John F. N. Wilkinson, Talley Holmes, H. Stanton McCard, William H. Wright, B. M. Rhetta, and Ralph Cook. Cook's brother, Charles, was one of the first coaches at Howard University.

The ATA listed four goals that are still followed today: to develop the sport among blacks, to spur the formation of clubs and the building of courts, to encourage and develop junior players, and to foster the formation of local associations. The ATA's first national championships, hosted by the Monumental Tennis Club, were held at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore in August 1917; twenty-three clubs sent thirty-nine entrants for the men's singles, won by Talley Holmes. Women's singles were added the following year, when Lucy Diggs Slowe became the first title-holder and the first black female national champion in any sport.

In the 1920s and 1930s the ATA concentrated on enlarging its summer tournament schedule to provide competitive opportunities for its members. Black college stars at white universities came out of the ATA-inspired programs: Henry Graham at Michigan, Richard Hudlin at the University of Chicago, Reginald Weir at the City College of New York, and Douglas Turner at the University of Illinois. In 1929 the ATA and the sport's white governing body, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), had a confrontation over the rejection of two players, Reginald Weir and Gerald Norman, from the USTA Junior Indoors tournament. The USTA had an unwritten rule that blacks could not participate in tournaments, and when Weir and Norman were barred, the NAACP made a formal complaint to the USTA. While the NAACP had rarely taken a stand on discrimination in sports during the period, it played a role in the USTA dispute because tennis was a middle-class sport with an avid following in the NAACP's professional constituency.

Black women's tennis during the 1920s and 1930s was not dominated by a single player. In the first twenty years of the ATA's existence, however, there were only five different female winners: Lucy Slowe, M. Rae, Isadore Channels, Lulu Ballard, and Ora Washington. Channels and Washington dominated the tournaments, with Channels winning four ATA national titles (1922, 1923, 1924, 1926) and Washington winning a record eight (each year from 1929 to 1935 and 1937). Washington was unorthodox in her approach to the game; she held the racquet high up on the handle, hardly ever took a full swing, and had unsurpassed foot speed. She maintained her championship standing until 1936, when Lulu Ballard defeated her. Into the 1940s and 1950s other outstanding players included singles champion Flora Lomax (titleholder in 1938, 1939, 1941, and 1942) and the team of Margaret and Roumania Peters, who won the ATA women's doubles crown a record fourteen times (each year from 1938 to 1941 and from 1944 to 1953).

The depression of the 1930s posed many advantages and many challenges for tennis players. The decade saw an expansion of tennis facilities under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Administration (WPA), including the addition of park courts in black neighborhoods. However, the economic hardships of the 1930s left many people without the resources to spend time playing or watching tennis.

One stronghold of tennis activity during the period was in black colleges, which always had a close relationship with the ATA. Many ATA members were college professors or administrators, and tennis was the most popular participant sport among black female professionals. One early ATA member was R. Walter Johnson, who played football at Lincoln University. He directed the organization's junior development program, which began in the early 1940s and produced tennis champion Althea Gibson. Cleveland Abbott, Tuskegee University's famed athletic director, was an ATA president. In 1937 the ATA arranged an exhibition tour by its best players at eight high schools and twenty-one colleges.

When racial integration of professional sports began between 1946 and 1950, the ATA adjusted quickly, since acceptance into USTA events was slow for blacks. The ATA and the USTA had an arrangement beginning in 1951 whereby the ATA nominated the black players to compete in the USTA nationals. Sixteen-year-old Arthur Ashe was a nominated player in 1959. The ATA provided indispensable competition for the best black players until the early 1970s, when all racial restrictions were lifted. Blacks nurtured through ATA events captured nearly seventy USTA national junior and senior titles.

The ATA, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, continues to sponsor training programs for young players and to conduct regional championships. Its National Championships remains a highlight of the African-American summer sports schedule.

See also Tennis


Ashe, Arthur. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, 19191945. New York: Warner Books, 1988.

arthur r. ashe jr. (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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American Tennis Association

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American Tennis Association