When the American Tennis Association’s (ATA) national championships were first planned out in 1917, the founders wanted the event to be more than an athletic gathering. This tournament, though humble in its beginnings, would be a social extravaganza.
Think Madea’s FamilyReunion: Card games galore, the matriarchs and patriarchs assembling to discuss how far the event has come, and reuniting with one’s favorite cousins every year.
The nationals were the place to be even if one wasn’t watching or playing in the championships. A lot of that family reunion atmosphere was forged when the first black professional sports league in the United States hosted its marquee event at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Before 1927, the tournament was held at private clubs or public parks, but from 1927 to 1968, HBCUs hosted all but six of the ATA’s national tournaments. Bethune-Cookman University, Hampton University, Lincoln University, South Carolina State University, Tuskegee University, West Virginia State University and Wilberforce University played a pivotal role in the organization’s ability to expand, as the schools offered housing, dining and recreational facilities for the players, members and attendees.
To attend an ATA tournament at an HBCU meant reconnecting with old friends, rubbing shoulders with the celebrities of the day and becoming a member of a lifelong social and athletic network.
“The ATA is what really built black college tennis,” Arthur Carrington Jr. said. “ATA went on the campus and used the facilities … and it really became a recreational, social extravaganza.
“It was a phenomenal experience.”
Tennis legends such as Althea Gibson (Florida A&M), Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters (Tuskegee), Nathaniel and Franklin Jackson (Tuskegee), Jimmie McDaniel (Xavier University of Louisiana) and George Stewart (South Carolina State) all fine-tuned their games while at their postsecondary institutions.
Black folks created the ATA, the Negro Leagues, Black Wall Street, HBCUs and the black press to give their athleticism and intellectualism an arena to operate, since it was not allowed to prosper in the white world.
Besides historically black colleges and universities, the black press was another key component in the ATA’s winning equation. The news media worked with the ATA and was instrumental in providing nuanced and detailed coverage of its players and events.
If it were not for publications such as the Baltimore Afro–American, which detailed the ATA from its conception, the Chicago Defender,Philadelphia Tribune, Atlanta Daily World, Los Angeles Sentinel, New York Amsterdam News and more, historical moments in black tennis achievement would be lost.
The coverage McDaniel received for playing six-time Grand Slam champion Don Budge in the highest profile interracial match of its time at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem, New York, in 1940, was an exception to the rule. It was not until the rise of Gibson and more extensively with the success of Arthur Ashe Jr. that the mainstream media began to cover black tennis and its players.
“One of the goals of the black press is to lift up black organizations and celebrating your black life and black culture,” said Gregory Huskisson, who covered the ATAs for the Atlanta Daily World while attending Morehouse College. “At that time, the ATA would come to town and they would have either a conference or tournaments to lift up and celebrate young people that were playing tennis.
“Our objective was to give them the kind of coverage and publicity that would allow them to recruit more people, so they could continue to do what they were doing.”
But in the four decades since Huskisson, the vice president of content and audience for Equal Access Media Inc., covered the event, the black press has been hollowed out due to the effects of integration and dwindling black readership. As a result, when looking for information on ATA national championships, there is a slow drip of resources.
One of the last mainstays was Fred Williams, the author of the “Tennis Beat” for the Sentinel, who covered everything from black tennis in California, including Venus and Serena Williams, to Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil in the 1980s, Vince Mackey in the 1990s and others until 2009.
Mainstream media has covered the ATA here and there, but not at the level the black press once did. When the league’s biggest stars – Gibson, Stewart, Ashe, Garrison, McNeil – are discussed by big-name media companies, the league often does not receive credit for helping to elevate those talents.
“If it were not for the black press spreading the word and lifting folks up, like those in the ATA and others, then there’s no way those organizations would’ve been able to flourish as well as they did,” Huskisson said. “Therefore, their mission of providing opportunity for talented young black people who didn’t get opportunity elsewhere would have been largely thwarted because that’s their mission. So without the celebrity and exposure, then they would not have been able to raise the publicity or the funds or the resources to advance their mission.”
Carrington, an ATA men’s singles and doubles champion, said: “If it wasn’t for the black media, black tennis wouldn’t have been covered at all. White media didn’t cover our stuff. … How many people think of Arthur Ashe and the ATA? Nobody thinks of that. They don’t associate him with ATA like Jackie Robinson and Negro baseball. … That’s the stuff that hurts me.”
Just like the black press, integration had an adverse affect on HBCUs relationships with the championships. The safe space a black institution offered was no longer necessary, as the tournament could move across the country and venture to new horizons. The organization and its attendees have also grown bigger than what a number of HBCUs can hold in terms of available courts, lodging and so forth.
While the ATA may use HBCUs as a satellite site for some of its matches these days, an HBCU has not hosted the national championships in almost 50 years.
Starting in 2013, the matches have been played in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, until this year’s 100th anniversary tournament in Baltimore.
As one of the last generations to play at a tournament at an HBCU, Carrington nostalgically looked back at his experiences.
“On the black college campus it would feel like a haven. A safe haven, so you could come and really get comfortable,” Carrington said. “All the meals were in the cafeteria, so you’re meeting people, you’re eating with the people three meals a day, and that’s how a strong community got built. That’s how I met Arthur Ashe at the ATA Nationals. It’s nothing like it. It changed my life.
“I met my wife at Hampton, I’ve been married over 50 years. I’ve got a whole life from the ATA. I’m proud to tell people I started in a black neighborhood. I was developed right there. Got my tennis in the neighborhood. So I was pretty much developed by black education. That prepared me for the big world.”
As the ATA celebrates its 101st birthday and 100th national tournament, where does the league go from here?
In the past the best black players would participate. These days they aren’t.
One of the tournament’s main draws was that winners could receive a wild card into the qualifying round of the US Open. That is no longer the case. In the last 30 years, the top players have opted for other national tournaments.
“I hate to say it, but it’s almost like the Negro Baseball Leagues – it’s like a museum,” Carrington said. “I don’t have the answer to that about us moving ahead. I think any organization that has a 100-year history should live, but at the time that it was founded it was providing an opportunity in tennis that couldn’t be gotten. Now that’s not the case.”
Still, there is optimism in and around the organization. The ATA on Wednesday inducted Richard Williams, the father, coach and mentor of Venus and Serena Williams, into its first Hall of Fame.
The organization has a proposed new headquarters in Fort Lauderdale and is planning to name its stadium court after Richard Williams. Venus and Serena Williams have pledged $1 million to the project, Tennis.life reported.
For the last 20 years, the ATA has been fighting to establish a permanent home, the ATA Tennis and Education Complex, that would feature courts and a museum celebrating black tennis. Such a facility could revitalize the league’s efforts to not only remain alive but be relevant in the 21st century.
“Absolutely [there’s still a purpose for the ATA],” Huskisson said. “I think that organizations like the ATA, the black press and the industry, in my opinion they just need to morph and adapt.
“Before, you were providing the only opportunity for the top talent to flourish and get to the next level and then be more competitive like the Althea Gibsons and so forth. Now, you need to morph and say, ‘Let’s provide an opportunity for kids who may not be at the upper echelon, but may be that middle echelon and just giving them opportunity and allowing them to grow, so they can get, perhaps, to that upper echelon.’
“Because the establishment organization is not going to be in the weeds. They’re going to take the best of the best across the country. But the ATA can say, ‘OK, that top 10-top 15 percent, we know we’re going to lose a lot of them to the USTA, so let’s focus on those people that are between 50 and 85 percent.’ They’re above average in talent and above average in potential … and focus on that middle tier.”
Derrick McMillan, a 25-year member of the ATA, believes there is an opportunity for the organization to re-brand and find new ways to make itself marketable.
The ATA has a Facebook page, but lacks a Twitter, Periscope or Snapchat account.
“It’s always good to have your better kids come out, because our kids love competition,” McMillan, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association certified pro, said. “They’ll see, ‘This is the level I need to get to.’ The only way you really know that is to compete against it. Just looking at it, is not necessarily what you need. You need to actually get out and compete against it.
“If we could have a lot more media attention as to different things that are happening in the ATA, that would definitely do wonders for what the ATA is trying to accomplish and do.”