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Pacific Northwest

Celebrate Black History Month

Steve Hall

Chair of the USTA/PNW Historical Committee

 

We thought this would be a good time to recognize Marion Blackburn who over the years  has done a great deal to provide tennis opportunities for members of the African American community in the Pacific Northwest. The following is a profile of Marion’s involvement with tennis taken from Mike Stone’s excellent book published in 2015 entitled “PDX 10s – Tennis in Portland, Oregon, 1886 – 1990”  

 

Marion Blackburn grew up in Huntsville Alabama a town with two tennis courts but, in the segregated society, African Americans weren’t able to use them. Blackburn recalls walking by the courts and seeing college professors from Alabama A&M College playing on the clay courts using starch to mark the lines on the unmaintained dirt courts. Blackburn was seven years old at the time, was allowed to use the courts after the professors were done. But public housing would later be built on the site and the courts disappeared. 

 

Blackburn attended Alabama A&M College (later a university) and was asked to play on a ragtag tennis team. (“nobody could play,” Blackburn laughingly recalled).

 

Blackburn moved to Portland in the early 1960’s and met Nate Nickerson, an African-American player who would routinely beat Blackburn. But Blackburn was hooked on the game and credits Nickerson and Jim Jackson with improving his game. He would later play in the Army where he reached a doubles final with a partner from Indiana University. Blackburn returned to Portland and opened a small wood manufacturing plant but tennis was still his passion. He found a small warehouse at John’s Landing with a 10 foot ceiling where he opened his first club, Tennis Lessons Inc., with two narrow courts on a concrete floor that were suitable for lessons but  not play. Two years later he had more than 200 students in group lessons.

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Blackburn saw a trend, he and his staff would do all the instruction and then the players would turn around and join one of the private clubs (Blackburn was a member of the Irvington Club, the first African-American accepted as a member of a private club in the Pacific Northwest, according to Blackburn). It was time to open his own club. Building the facility from scratch Blackburn opened Tennis Town on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in 1977, later renamed Raleigh Hills Racquet and Health Club and now the Portland Athletic Club. According to Blackburn he is the only African-American owner of a private tennis club in the country. 

 

During the 1970’s and 1980’s Blackburn was a fixture on the amateur Pacific Northwest tournament circuit. He was ranked in the Pacific Northwest 35s for years and won the Oregon State men’s 35’s numerous times. In 2015 Blackburn still plays regularly at his club but his tournament days are behind him. The vacant lot adjacent to the Portland Athletic Club main building has been sold and apartments have been built.

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