Association Tennis Club and Monumental Tennis Club, D.C., Baltimore
WHILE Black universities, including nearby Howard, offered tennis to students from the 1890s, the first known invitational for Black amateurs kicked off in 1898 at Philadelphia’s Chautauqua Tennis Club. But it wasn’t until the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) — the pre-cursor to the United States Tennis Association (USTA) — issued a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions, that Black leaders from the Association Tennis Club of Washington, DC, and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, conceived of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
On Thanksgiving Day 1916, representatives from more than a dozen black tennis clubs met in Washington, D.C. to formally convene the club, but it was consecrated in August 1917, when the ATA held its National Championships at the home of the Monumental Tennis Club: Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. After that, various HCBUs, hosted the events to accommodate large groups of Black tennis players whom most hotels would turn away. The ATA Nationals soon became one of the most anticipated social events of the year in the black community — committees planned formal dances and other activities during the week of play. The Monumental Tennis Club eventually became the Baltimore Tennis Club, which still holds conducts year-round training programs for adults and juniors, league play and tournaments. The ATA held its 100th anniversary tournament at Druid Hill Park in 2017.
The Philadelphia Tennis Club
MANY tennis clubs and associations vie for various titles of merit, but the Philadelphia Tennis Club (PTC) lays claim to the oldest African-American owned tennis club in the U.S. Starting life as the Chautauqua Tennis Club, it and several other Black tennis associations in the area bought property in Northwest Philadelphia near Germantown and established the Philadelphia Tennis Club in in 1959. The PTC built eight lighted Har-Tru courts and a small clubhouse, eventually opening in 1962.
Ora Washington, one of the sports luminaries, however, was never able to play on the new courts of the PTC, although she worked as a housekeeper in nearby Germantown. Had segregation not determined her fate, Washington might have been the first Althea Gibson. Born in 1898 in Virginia, Washington arrived in Philadelphia during the first wave of black migration from the South and picked up a tennis racquet at the Germantown YWCA in 1924. A year later, Washington, whose story also coincides with LGBT History, won her first of 12 straight ATA national women’s doubles titles. She would eventually win eight singles titles and three mixed doubles before retiring in 1938 to focus on her basketball.
Harlem Tennis Center and Lincoln Terrace, New York
ON the corner of 149th Street and Convent, there now stands a low, brick building of apartments whose residents likely don’t know they live on hallowed ground. This is the onetime site of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a bi-racial tennis club where not only Althea Gibson trained with Frederick Johnson, a one-armed Jamaican, and Sydney Llewellyn, but where Don Budge — the first American to win the Grand Slam of tennis — defeated against Jimmy McDaniel, the ATA champion in 1940. The event marked what many called a “crack” in the wall of segregation. “Jimmy is a very good player,” Budge told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “I’d say he’d rank with the first ten of our white players.” McDaniel added, “Well, I never expected to beat him, though I did want to make a good showing. But I never in my life made so many double faults and I certainly wish I had his back-hand.”
Exactly a mile away, at 143rd and Malcolm X Blvd., in 1972 two Harlem residents and tennis enthusiasts, Claude Cargill and Bill Brown, turned about half of the 369th Regiment Armory into tennis courts. There, they played and gave subsidized tennis lessons to the neighborhood children. The armory courts eventually became the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program (HJETP), which hired a former collegiate All-American at Northwestern and pro tennis player named Katrina Adams as its Executive Director in 2005. Ten years later, she became the first Black chairman, chief executive and president of the USTA.
Founded in the 1960s to care for a section of courts near Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Lincoln Terrace Tennis Association (LTTA), literally, serves the communities of Brownsville, Crown Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant, Canarsie and Prospect Heights — once largely Black communities. There since the 1930s, the 11 tennis courts were reconstructed in 1996, with new courts, retaining walls, fencing, benches and lighting, and again in 2014. While not a known member of the ATA, over the last 50 plus years, the LTTA operate year-round junior and adult programs, in addition to four summer tournaments and ladder competition.
The Chicago Prairie Tennis Association
LED by Mary Anne Seames — known across the Midwest as “Mother Seames” for her reigning presence on the courts and her “Non-Returnable Poison Service” — a small group of African Americans formed the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club (CPTC) in 1912 believing that “athletic competition and good sportsmanship are prerequisites for building personalities and character.” It was very much in the separate but equal philosophy of Booker T. Washington, then the country’s pre-eminent Black leader, whose own son was known to tear up the courts at the Tuskeegee Institute. Seames, active in black tennis circles since 1906, set up several dirt and clay courts at 37th and Prairie Avenue (hence the name), before moving to a nearby armory and finally settling on four courts that she and her husband built at 32nd and Vernon Avenue in 1920. CPTC had the first private grounds for a Black tennis club in the United States.
Seames, a fierce competitor known to defeat ATA competitors half her age — even at age 58 — also helped found the Tri-City Classic, held annually for 73 years among the CPTC, the Forest City Tennis Club in Cleveland and the Motor City Tennis Club in Detroit. The club also started its own junior program in the early 1980s, eventually helping produce regional and college champions. Katrina Adams, former USTA President, was known around the courts before heading to nearby Northwestern University. Seames, who extolled tennis “as a form of beneficial exercise,” superior to the Charleston, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, would have been proud.