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Hughes Gill Relishes in Expanding, Diversifying Tennis
Kim Hughes Gill was recruited by nine colleges to play women’s tennis after her standout prep career at East St. Louis Senior High School concluded in 1979. With aspirations of competing at the NCAA Division-I level, Hughes Gill ultimately elected to attend the University of Tennessee. Her long-held dream of playing collegiate tennis on the horizon, Hughes Gill was set to flourish on the court and in the classroom at UT.
Except when she arrived in Knoxville, Hughes Gill — who is black — didn’t have the experience she envisioned.
“Some uncomfortable situations occurred,” Hughes Gill said. “I had dealt with racism, but never an in-my-face kind of racism. Being in that community made it very clear to me as to where I belonged and where I didn’t.”
So thanks to a lifeline from the African-American-founded ATA (American Tennis Association) and some excellent timing with the enactment of Title IX, Hughes Gill got out. She was on the ATA’s preferred list of college-age black student-athletes, which was provided to NCAA administration.
Lincoln University in Jefferson City — a public, historically black land-grant institution — needed to meet Title IX requirements and decided to create a women’s tennis program. Hughes Gill was one of several transfer students from around the globe Lincoln brought in to form its inaugural squad.
Hughes Gill found her home, and the Blue Tigers did nothing but decimate their oncomers. Despite a coach running the program who never had before played tennis, Lincoln finished second in its first season before capturing back-to-back Missouri Intercollegiate Association Conference championships in 1983 and ’84. Hughes Gill and her doubles partner from Jamaica, Keisha Abrams, went undefeated at No. 1 doubles both those years.
“It was awesome,” Hughes Gill said. “We were driven. We were tough. We later learned there had been an investigation on eligibility. ‘How did they do this? What are they up to?’ We were playing schools with strong teams and came out of the clear blue.”
After graduating from Lincoln, Hughes Gill jumped into her career with the IRS. She later worked in taxation at Edward Jones and as an internal auditor with the City of St. Louis as well as the Bi-State Development agency. Hughes Gill became founder/president of BKJ & Associates, LLC in 2007, which provides accounting, tax and small-business consulting services. Hughes Gill holds a master’s degree in management.
She was a founding member of the award-winning East St. Louis Community Tennis Association in 2017 and is on the 501c3 nonprofit’s board as treasurer. Hughes Gill was recently appointed as head of USTA Missouri Valley’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.
“That’s been quite an eye-opener,” Hughes Gill said. “I’m truly humbled to be in this role. No. 1, it’s a very personal commitment because I’m a grassroots product of this effort before it was ever named or titled. I’m just thinking 50 years ago of what black tennis was like or for us to be considered being included.”
Hughes Gill said growing the game of tennis and ensuring its inclusivity is at the heart of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee’s objectives. She noted the history of tennis has a rich but elitist and exclusive past — which can’t be evaded — but that past shouldn’t stifle the sport from moving forward with open arms for all potential participants.
“We cannot exclude anyone,” Hughes Gill said. “From abilities or lack of abilities, there are still ways to be inclusive. Race, creed, color, sexual orientation — whatever there may be — they can adapt to play the game. And that is a beautiful thing. I’m very excited about continuing to educate people on how to allow that to be. And find ways to make it easier for that to be.”
The East St. Louis CTA has brought Hughes Gill full circle, crafting tennis opportunities for players in the same underserved area she honed her game as a child. Grants from USTA and the state of Illinois enabled the construction of three state-of-the-art courts and a grandstand area. The East St. Louis CTA started with $100 and has evolved to 30 times that, Hughes Gill said.
Individuals or organizations interested in applying for USTA grants can do so by clicking here. The USTA St. Louis Board of Directors encourages interested parties to submit their application for the 2022 USTA St. Louis Community Development Grant. Grants are open from March 1 through September 1.
Darian Banks, tennis pro and head director of East St. Louis CTA, introduces the sport to at least 25 kids each week by way of free lessons and equipment for participants. In 2020, the organization was named Outstanding Community Tennis Association by both USTA St. Louis and USTA Missouri Valley. Two girls who took part in programming are now on tennis scholarships at HBCUs.
“With any kid I meet when they’re playing tennis, I tell them to have fun,” Hughes Gill said. “Let this be a sport where you enjoy it. The competitiveness will come. You’re out there by yourself. You’re making decisions where you can’t blame anyone else. You have to figure it out. It just helps you learn to accept responsibility for the good and the bad of it.”
Hughes Gill was slow to embrace tennis as a child, instead preferring to hang out in the pool while her father taught lessons at Jones Park. Her dad, James A. Hughes, was a native East St. Louisan and multisport, scholarship athlete at HBCU Grambling State University. While preparing to chaperone a group of his competitive players in the ATA-sponsored Mid-Tac Tournament held in Louisville, his only child wanted to join in on the trip.
“‘He was like, ‘Nope. Nobody is going if you don’t play tennis. You can’t go,’” Hughes Gill said. “I picked up my first wooden racquet he gave me, and I learned how to play. I was able to travel to the tournament. It was an eye-opener for me. I never would have ever thought other black kids were playing tennis. And especially playing tennis at a competitive level like they were. I met friends and I loved it. I was bit by the bug at that point.”
Hughes Gill continued playing tennis until around 2005. As a single parent she said she needed to “focus and be mom,” and an injury exacerbated the situation. Her two daughters — Briana Moore and Jamiell Johnson — participated in tennis through high school. Her granddaughter, 4-year-old Kai Moore, is just beginning to play the game. Hughes Gill, 60, is now married to Charles Gill.
“The most near-and-dear portion of all this work is coming from the experience of being a youth and growing up in the sport,” Hughes Gill said. “Knowing how tennis opportunities opened my eyes to a world I don’t think I would have explored had it not been for this sport.
“Tennis can open up a whole new world for young people. From seeing life in a different view to just being exposed to environments that can alter your thinking. ‘Now I can dream a little bit bigger. I can see outside of the world I see every day.’ It’s enlightening to see the beautiful greens or go where the park is manicured and the facility is well-maintained. Just to be in that world makes you feel proud.”
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