2021 Eastern Hall of Fame: Dr. Dale Caldwell
It started with a letter. In 2006, newly-installed USTA Eastern Section President Dr. Dale G. Caldwell—the first Black person ever to hold that position at the organization—wrote to the leadership at the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) and asked them to consider developing an exhibit that spotlighted Black tennis history. The subject matter was vast and underexplored, he wrote. Baseball has done a great deal to commemorate its historical Black players—why can’t our sport?
“Much to my surprise, they said ‘All right, that’s a good idea. Why don’t you serve as the exhibit curator?’” Caldwell recalls. “If I had just been a typical tennis fan, they would have likely ignored my suggestion. But I had the good fortune of being the president of a prestigious USTA section...one of the things my dad taught me was to use any influence that I had to make a difference in society.”
Caldwell worked closely with ITHF Museum Director Gary Cogar and tennis champion and historian Art Carrington to put together what would eventually be called Breaking the Barriers. The exhibit waded through 100 years of history, showcasing the stories of the many excellent Black tennis players in the twentieth century who could not reach the upper echelons of the sport or gain any renown because of the color of their skin. It also shined a light on the formation and century-long work of the American Tennis Association (ATA), a national tennis organization created specifically to help those players compete, as well as the achievements on and off the court of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and more as they started to break through the discriminatory and racist regulations that had held them down for so long.
Breaking the Barriers debuted at the 2007 US Open, where it was viewed by over 26,000 spectators. After the tournament, it would become the ITHF’s most successful touring exhibit ever.
“It was very well-received, by people of all races and backgrounds,” says Caldwell. “I remember young white players and their parents looking at the exhibit with tears in their eyes. I overheard them saying, ‘I’m complaining about line calls, and look what these players went through.’ That really was very moving to me, because the exhibit opened people’s eyes to a history they never knew about. My hope was to convince people that Black history is American history.”
The success of the exhibit led Caldwell to subsequently found the Black Tennis Hall of Fame (BTHOF) in 2007 so that an official body could continue to recognize the athletes who were for so long overlooked. So far, the BTHOF has inducted nearly 100 of these tennis VIPs; under the leadership of Shelia Curry, it recently held its thirteenth induction ceremony. Caldwell considers the BTHOF his proudest tennis-related accomplishment.
“Bob Ryland, the first black male tennis pro, was one of the biggest fans of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame,” Caldwell notes. “He was just so appreciative that his legacy was honored. Recognizing these great players, some of whom have been forgotten, will always be what I’m most proud of in tennis.”
Caldwell’s own personal journey in the sport reveals just why he has dedicated his life to this work. His love for the game was instilled in him by his late father, the Reverend Gilbert H. Caldwell Jr. Before he became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gilbert grew up in deeply segregated Galveston, Texas, where the nearby tennis club only permitted white members. A big fan of the sport, “my dad used to look through the fence and wish he could play,” Dale says.
Gilbert eventually moved up north to Boston for divinity school. There, he started a family and brought a young Dale to the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club, a Dorchester, Massachusetts-based non-profit tennis facility that had been established in 1961 by members of the Black community.
“He wanted to make sure his first-born son had the opportunities to play tennis he didn’t have because of segregation,” Dale explains.
As Dale got older, he would make the most of those opportunities. He competed in junior tournaments across the USTA New England Section, eventually becoming the No. 5 junior in Connecticut and earning a section ranking in the Boys’ 18 division. He also attained a national ranking in the Top 17 in the same division of the ATA. The consistently good results ultimately spilled over into Dale’s off-court life, giving the young student belief and confidence.
“I grew up in largely Black communities,” he explains. “And I went to white private schools. I really felt like a fish out of water in both places. So there was a lot of insecurity. But tennis provided a foundation for me. I knew I always had that. It really helped ground me so I could be successful in other things.”
He also credits the sport with helping him get into Princeton University, where he earned a degree in economics and played for the school’s “B” tennis team. (Future professional players Jay Lapidus and Leif Shiras competed for the “A” team at the time, which was ranked No. 5 in the country.) And he continued to achieve great results post-college, attaining rankings in three USTA Eastern divisions (Men’s 25, 30 and 40), two USTA Middle States divisions (Men’s Open and 35) and nationally for Men’s 40. He also won the New Jersey Senior Olympics Gold Medal.
To share his love for the game, he became certified as a United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) P-1 tennis pro, a certification he’s continued to hold for over 36 years. Holding this certification afforded him his most cherished on-court experience, when he got the chance to help Arthur Ashe teach tennis at an event in 1989. Ashe was speaking at the Black MBA Association and wanted to give free lessons to some of the attendees who were interested. They needed another certified coach, so Dale, a member of the association, stepped up to assist.
“What a gentleman,” Dale says of Ashe. “If there was any athlete growing up that I admired, he was number one...Growing up in New England, so often I would be the only Black player in junior tournaments. So as an African-American, you don’t necessarily have the confidence that you should have. You feel like an impostor. That’s why Arthur Ashe was so great. I mean, how in the face of racism was he able to be so successful? Ashe and other BTHOF Inductees experienced a lot of trauma, and their sacrifices made my life in and out of tennis a lot easier. I realize I’m standing on their shoulders.”
Dale reflected on all of this—as well his father’s Galveston history—prior to sending the letter to the ITHF. And when he joined the USTA National Board after his tenure as Eastern President—the first Black person to join the governing body after serving as a Section President—he continued to envision similar initiatives.
One of his big projects after he served as chair of the USTA’s Strategic Planning Committee was the creation of the New York Open, a professional tournament held in Central Park. It was designed specifically to help players ranked below 300 in the world earn extra income. The tournament ran from 2013 to 2019, and Dale hopes to bring a similar event back to the area in the future.
“For young players of color and players who are economically disadvantaged, these kinds of tournaments give them a shot.”
Overall, the projects in tennis that Dale has championed—from Breaking the Barriers to Hall of Fame to the New York Open—support one overarching goal. It’s another mentality instilled in him by his father.
“I want to be a voice for the voiceless,” he says.
Dale Caldwell will be inducted into the Eastern Hall of Fame at the 34th Annual Eastern Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which will be held Friday, August 27, 2021. Proceeds from the event—including ticket sales—benefit the Junior Tennis Foundation (JTF), which helps provide scholarships to junior and adaptive players across the Eastern Section. Learn more about the ceremony and the JTF here.
Below, read profiles of other 2021 inductees:
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