2020 Black History Month: The founding of the ATA, 1916

Mark Preston | February 03, 2020

The long and storied history of tennis in the U.S. features a multitude of significant chapters authored by African-Americans. From the sport’s earliest days through its modern era, countless contributions to tennis’ growth and success have been made by players, coaches and administrators of color. Some helped tear down barriers; some have torn up record books. Several have transcended the sport they helped to build to become true American icons. All have been an inspiration, providing this sport, those who play it and those who revel in it, with myriad memorable moments.


As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, recalls some of the most memorable of those important moments; milestones that helped to change the face of this sport—literally and figuratively—and inspire us all to raise our game. Today, we look at the founding of the ATA in 1916.

For decades after the USLTA (now the USTA) was founded as tennis’ National Governing Body in 1881, the ball, the apparel and all of those who played in sanctioned tournaments were white. But despite those restrictions—and the stifling air of segregation throughout the land—the sport of tennis nonetheless became a popular one for many African-Americans in the U.S. By the late 1890s, African-American universities, including Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Tuskegee University in Alabama, were fielding tennis teams, and African-American tennis clubs hosted their own invitational tournaments.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1916, representatives of a dozen of those clubs, including African-American doctors, teachers and businessmen, came together in Washington, D.C., to form the American Tennis Association (ATA), with the aim of promoting the sport among African-Americans, encouraging the formation of more local clubs and associations, and developing more junior players. The following year, the first ATA National Championships were held at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, with Talley Holmes, a Dartmouth graduate and one of the ATA’s founding fathers, capturing its inaugural title.

In the hundred-plus years that have followed, the ATA has written its own magnificent legacy, and has been a prolific pipeline for some of the greatest players, coaches and contributors in the history of tennis. Because the heavy curtain of segregation was so painfully slow in rising, some of those names are less familiar, including Holmes, five-time ATA men’s champ Dr. Reginald Weir (who became the first African-American man to compete in a USLTA-sanctioned event in 1948), four-time men’s champ Jimmy McDaniel (pictured above), inaugural ATA women’s champ Lucy Diggs Slowe, eight-time ATA women’s singles champion Ora Washington and four-time women’s champ Isadore Channels.

Others have ascended from the ranks of the ATA to the pinnacle of the sport, including five-time Grand Slam singles champion Althea Gibson—the first African-American ever to compete in the U.S. National Championships in 1950—and Arthur Ashe, a three-time Grand Slam singles champ and the first African-American man to win titles at the US Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975). Both of these peerless pioneers are now ensconced in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, as is the man who helped coach and guide their development through the ATA Junior Development Program he founded—Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson.

Other accomplished players, including Zina Garrison, MaliVai Washington, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin and Katrina Adams (who went on to become the first African-American president of the USTA), to name just a few, trained at ATA clubs and played in ATA tournaments before turning pro.

With more than 2,000 members, the ATA remains a vital and vibrant organization to this day, and is the oldest African-American sports association in the country. In 2018, the ATA held its 101st National Championship at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., a full-circle testament to inevitable failure of exclusion and the power of tennis to unite.


Photo above: Jimmy McDaniels in action at the New York State Negro Tennis Championship at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in New York City, Aug. 5, 1940. (Credit: Getty Images)



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