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National

Dr. Hubert A. Eaton: A visionary benefactor

Doug Smith | February 08, 2022


Two well-dressed physicians sat high in the bleachers during the 1945 American Tennis Association (ATA) National Championships focusing their attention on wiry Althea Gibson, who faced petite Roumania Peters in the women’s final at Central State (Ohio) University. The whispered conversation between Dr. Robert Walter ‘Whirlwind’ Johnson of Lynchburg, Va., and Dr. Hubert A. Eaton, of Wilmington, N.C., laid the groundwork that set 18-year-old Gibson on the path to greatness.

 

“Whirlwind said to me, ‘You know Hubert, I wish we could do something to help that girl, Althea,”’ Eaton recalled. “She’s a good tennis player, but she’s not going to amount to much, doing what she’s doing now, hanging around on the streets of New York.”

 

The two doctors were convinced that Gibson--undisciplined and erratic, both on and off the court—needed to make major changes in her playing style and personality if she were to become a major talent.

Dr. Hubert A. Eaton and Althea Gibson. Photo from the NHC Library Star News Collection, courtesy of One Love Tennis.

Gibson was born in 1927 to Daniel and Anna Bell Gibson, who were sharecroppers on a South Carolina cotton farm. The family moved to Harlem, N.Y., in the early 1930s. An admitted tomboy, Gibson quit school at 13, and spent her free time playing stickball, an inner-city street game, using a broom stick and rubber ball. She also took boxing lessons from her father, hung out in pool rooms and played basketball before discovering tennis.

 

Gibson entered her first tournament at age 14 and at times, faced opponents with street-like intensity. “I kept wanting to fight the other player every time I started to lose a match,” she once said.

Dr. Hubert A. Eaton. Photo courtesy of One Love Tennis.

Knowing that the two doctors were in the stands on that day, Gibson showed little emotion while losing to Peters 6-4, 7-9, 6-3. But her loss didn’t change the doctors’ desire to lend her a helping hand. “I tell you what,” said Eaton to Johnson. “I don’t have anybody to practice with down in Wilmington. If she’s willing to come, and if her mother gives her permission, I’ll take her down to Wilmington to let her live with my family and finish high school.

 

“You keep her (in Lynchburg) during the summers and see to it that she gets to the tournaments.”

 

Whirlwind’s response: “That sounds all right. I’d be willing to participate in something like that.” So immediately after the match, the doctors approached Gibson at courtside and told her of their plan.

 

Eaton asked Gibson, “Are you interested?

 

“Who wouldn’t be interested in a deal like that?” she responded.

Under the doctors’ combined guidance, Gibson matured and prospered—as both a player and a person. She won the ATA National Women’s title 10 consecutive years (1947-1956), and in 1950, became the first Black to compete in the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) National Championships (now the US Open). She was, of course, elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

 

Unlike Whirlwind, who found tennis later in life, Eaton was a promising junior, winning the ATA National Boys 18 title at 16. Three years later, he won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Champion, while attending Johnson C. Smith University. 

With Jim Crow laws barring Blacks from competing on public courts in the South, the ATA turned to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to host its adult and junior tournaments in southern cities. Social play in Black communities was limited. Some Black physicians and business professionals in southern states, built tennis courts in their backyards and organized their own tennis circuit.  “We’d play in Durham, Raleigh and Smithfield, North Carolina and we’d come here to Wilmington,” said Eaton. “Whirlwind joined us when he learned about it. Those sessions with his fellow professionals became the highlight of his social life. He was delighted to have found this group of friends who shared his interest and enthusiasm for the sport.”

 

Eaton graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in 1937; earned his M.D. from the University of Michigan (1942) and became a civil rights activist on and off the court. He spearheaded moves in his hometown to desegregate Wilmington College (now UNC at Wilmington), the YMCA, the Municipal Golf Course and the County Library System. With Johnson’s support, Eaton was elected ATA president in 1960 and served for 10 consecutive years.

 

Eaton helped strengthened the ATA’s junior development program, which was founded by Johnson, and his passion for tennis and for opening doors for others into the sport burned brightly until his death in 1991. Eaton, too, eventually played his way into the U.S. National Championships, losing in the first round of Forest Hills in 1954 to defending champion Tony Trabert.

Dr. Hubert A. Eaton. Photo courtesy of One Love Tennis.

Nothing, however, pleased the two doctors more than the joy they shared in helping Gibson become a role model for youngsters, Black and white.

 

After capturing her first Wimbledon title (1957), Gibson paid tribute to her two doctors at the Wimbledon ball, saying, “I remember particularly Dr. Robert W. Johnson and Dr. Hubert A. Eaton. It was in Dr. Eaton’s home, while completing high school that I received love and encouragement. It was through Dr. Johnson’s efforts and assistance that I was able to travel all over the United States and gain much needed experience.” Gibson dedicated her first book, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” to her two benefactors.

Doug Smith

 

Doug Smith is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of achievement as an editor and writer with Newsday, the New York Post and USA Today. In 1992, he edited and updated Arthur Ashe’s three-volume book, “A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the Black Athlete in America,” originally published in 1988 by Amistad Press. Smith’s book, “Whirlwind, the Godfather of Black Tennis,” published by Blue Eagle Publishing, won Writers Notes Magazine’s Book of the Year award in 2004. He currently writes about both sports and politics on his blog, thedougsmithpost.com.

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