Tennis is no different from the rest of American society in having once been segregated. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, as the USTA was known then, governed the sport for white America. The American Tennis Association (ATA) governed the sport for black America.
But unlike, for example, the Negro baseball leagues, which eventually faded away after Jackie Robinson paved the way for blacks in Major League Baseball, the ATA is still going strong more than 50 years after Althea Gibson became the first black person to play in the U.S. National Championships.
The ATA is the oldest black sports organization in the United States. It was established in 1916 when members of the Association Tennis Club of Washington, D.C., invited other black players and clubs – primarily in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area – to join the Association in forming a national tennis governing body for blacks. This new national organization sought to develop tennis among black people in the United States, to encourage the formation of clubs and the building of courts, to encourage the formation of local associations and to encourage and develop junior players.
Obviously, the ATA paved the way to international stardom for Gibson. It also played a key role in the emergence of Arthur Ashe as a world champion. Contemporary black pros who gained their footing via ATA national championships include Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin and Steve Campbell.
Promoting tennis as a sport for black people and developing junior tennis players remains at the core of the ATA's mission. But the ATA, now based in Culver City, Calif., welcomes people of all backgrounds.