With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, African Americans found themselves in a vulnerable position. Southern states amended their constitutions to disfranchise Black voters and legislatures enacted discriminatory laws designed to segregate African Americans in most facets of life. Physical intimidation, including lynching, insured compliance and white domination. In the North, discrimination existed in deceptive, although hardly less hurtful, forms of racial exclusion. In response, African Americans devised creative strategies to resist and survive. Sheer survival depended on solidarity and the creation of Black institutions to service community needs. W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells-Barnett exemplified this strategy as they fought diligently for economic, political, educational, and social equality through a self-help organization they both helped establish, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During this period, African Americans created their own tennis clubs and organized their own tournaments. In 1898, the Rev. W.W. Walker of Philadelphia established the first interstate Black tournament among clubs located in the Northeast. Historically Black colleges and universities, like Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, formed the earliest faculty tennis clubs.
At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began the “Great Migration” and left their southern farms in search of economic opportunity in northern cities. This movement significantly transformed African American cultural life as Black writers, artists, and intellectuals expressed their identity through a renewed sense of racial consciousness and pride known as the Harlem Renaissance. The nation’s economic collapse during the Depression of the 1930s left many Blacks, once again, obliged to participate in creative survival. During this era, African Americans engaged in prolonged legislative and legal efforts to gain equal access in American life, especially public education, and voting. By 1938, Blacks initiated legal strategies in the courts to end racial segregation and introduced legislative policy in Congress for a federal anti-lynching law. Sport, including tennis, served as the athletic counterpart to the artistic expression found in the Harlem Renaissance and, in 1915, the Harlem Colonial Tennis Club was established. A year later, Black tennis organized nationally as the American Tennis Association (ATA) under the leadership of H. Stanton McCard. In 1921, African American tennis experienced another milestone when Black businessmen opened the Shady Rest Golf and Tennis Club in New Jersey. Shady Rest became the nation’s first Black owned and operated tennis club.
During this era, a series of Supreme Court decisions, World War II, and the Cold War resulted in the advent of the modern Civil Rights Movement. African Americans devised legal strategies that successfully challenged racial segregation in the courts and leveraged international tensions during World War II and its aftermath to achieve equality. In the late 1930s, Civil Rights organizations, especially the NAACP, launched a legal campaign to end segregation in public education that eventually resulted in the landmark 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education. After World War II, African American soldiers returned home in full anticipation of first-class citizenship but were denied equal access to American democracy. Racism threatened America’s moral leadership in the following Cold War years. Consequently, Civil Rights leaders pressured the government, especially the State Department, to ensure that African Americans received the same democratic freedoms promised American allies overseas. The tennis world reflected the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement when, in 1950, Althea Gibson became the first African American to participate in the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) national championship at Forest Hills, New York.
This decade encompassed many of the people, movements, and events associated with the modern Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King initiated the successful tactic of non-violent, direct, participatory protest during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and this approach defined many of the era’s subsequent demonstrations for racial equality. In 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom reflected the grassroots support for political and economic change. The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Under Fannie Lou Hamer’s guidance, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party emerged during “Freedom Summer” and helped guarantee ratification of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Despite these achievements, social unrest in cities such as the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and New York City left many African Americans questioning the nation’s timetable for racial freedom and commitment to its democratic ideals. This period witnessed several achievements by Black tennis players. In 1957, Althea Gibson became the first African American to win the U.S. National Championship, now the US Open. Additional titles that same year at Wimbledon and the Australian Nationals secured her recognition as the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year. In men’s tennis, Bob Ryland broke the color barrier and became the first African American professional male tennis player.
By the mid-1960s, African Americans demonstrated a renewed commitment to self-definition and black identity in response to racial injustice. The Politics of Liberation favored race pride, black consciousness, cultural autonomy, and self-determination over the traditional policies associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Black Power challenged and usurped conventional approaches in the struggle for freedom. African Americans adopted a more confrontational style of protest, and sought coalitional support from the world’s developing nations, especially in Africa, engaged in their own wars for national liberation. Athletes such as Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos represented the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” when both pledged their support for the Olympic Committee for Human Rights and openly protested racial discrimination at the 1968 Games. In tennis, Arthur Ashe captured the 1968 US Open championship to become the first and only African American male to hold the title. His greatest victory, however, occurred off the court in his battle to defeat apartheid in South Africa. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, dominated women’s professional tennis and won multiple singles and doubles Grand Slam titles and Olympic Gold Medals.
The sport of tennis has made tremendous progress in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion since its beginnings as a formal game in 1874. Fortunately, the racial exclusion from tennis tournaments and country clubs has been eliminated. However, the sport still lacks widespread racial equity. Katrina Adams earned respect in 2015 as the first Black president of the USTA. The year 2020 has seen a major increase in global awareness of the unfair treatment of Black people in society, and the tennis world is more conscious than ever about the need to bring diversity and equity to the sport. The American Tennis Association (ATA), under the leadership of President Roxanne Aaron, has become an active and equal member of a group of the most powerful organizations in American tennis called Tennis Industry United. This marks the first time in history that the ATA has worked as full partners with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), Tennis Industry Association (TIA), United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA), Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). This new alliance has the potential to significantly increase the participation of Black recreational and professional players and the hiring of senior Black administrators.