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Southern

Nehemiah Atkinson: Southern HOF Inductee in 1997

Billy Crawford / New Orleans Tennis | February 02, 2022


ACHIEVEMENTS

  • 1986 – Inducted into Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame
  • 1993 – USPTR Player of the Year.
  • 1997 – First Black player inducted into Southern Tennis Hall of Fame
  • 2000 – Inducted into Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
  • Recipient of the first Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award
  • Recipient of T.N. Touchstone, Jr. Memorial Trophy, presented to a senior player who displays outstanding sportsmanship and support of Southern tennis.

Nehemiah Atkinson’s family moved to New Orleans from Biloxi, Miss. in his youth when his father was appointed as bishop of the diocese of the Holiness Church. He attended Thomy Lafon and J. W. Hoffman schools in New Orleans, and at the Louisiana Industrial Training School in Farmerville.

 

Atkinson first hit a tennis ball as a nine-year-old. As a young African-American child in New Orleans, he was attracted to tennis, which was largely confined to the ranks of the elite. According to Atkinson, tennis was and still is a white man’s game. But he didn’t understand racial barriers and was determined not to let them interfere with his or other African American’s enjoyment of the game. What resulted was a lifetime of work to encourage more minorities to learn the game and expand their cultural exposure.

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After a stint in the Army during World War II, Atkinson studied offset printing, worked a night job as a supervisor for a Coca-Cola plant and gave private tennis lessons during the day to adults, mostly affluent white persons. In all, he taught tennis to untold numbers of young people of different ethnic backgrounds including nearly a 23-year track record as the tennis instructor and supervisor for the New Orleans Recreation Department. He believed in giving back to the community. 

 

This is evident from his longtime volunteer work with the American Tennis Association and the establishment of the Nehemiah Atkinson Scholarship Foundation. Numerous young tennis players attended college because of Atkinson’s work.


Patience has its rewards and Atkinson has plenty of it. His crowning achievements as a tennis pro came in 1999. He reaped the benefits of his perseverance in high-level competition by winning four gold balls in national and international matches. After years of finishing near the top in his age division in national competition, Atkinson succeeded in winning a national singles championship in the Men’s 80s National Hardcourt Championship in San Diego. This milestone victory came on the heels of Atkinson’s winning the gold ball in doubles with his Florida partner Gardnar Mulloy against a Spanish team during the World International Senior Tennis Championships in Barcelona, Spain. 

 

“I’ve had a lot of fun playing in the senior tennis tournaments. I’ve met some of the best tennis players in the world such as Bitsy Grant, Bobby Riggs, and Gardnar Mulloy, and it has been a thrill to play with them, “ he said. Atkinson is not bashful in assessing his success in senior tournaments. He remarked, “I’ve got better wheels than most people I play. Also, I play a lot of young folks and I’m simply out on the court a lot. Tennis keeps you young. It stimulates your heart, keeps your body in shape and your eyes sharp.”


MILITARY YEARS

When World War II began, he entered into the Army. After completing basic training, he was assigned to the 97th Regiment, the Army’s Black Corp of Engineers. The 97th was assigned to help build the Alcan Highway. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States military was fearful of an attack on the West Coast and/or Alaska. The military decreed that a better connection between the remote territory and the lower 48 states was essential, and the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) was the solution. 11,000 soldiers, including 4,000 from the 97th, bulldozed their way into engineering history. Stretching 1,500 miles from British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, the ALCAN traverses incredibly difficulty and hostile territory, crossing the Canadian Rockies, raging rivers and dense forest. Remarkably, it was built in just eight months. The 97th served in Alaska until March, of 1944; after a short tour in the U.S., was shipped to the Pacific Theater. It remained there until the end of the war.

 

TEACHING CAREER

After the war, Atkinson returned to New Orleans. He began teaching tennis to the youth in his community during the day while holding night jobs. He used public parks and the tennis courts at Xavier University.

 

In 1973, the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club moved to a new location, and the City of New Orleans acquired the tennis facility on South Saratoga Street and renamed it the Stern Tennis Center, honoring Percival Stern, a local philanthropist.


The New Orleans Recreation Department needed a tennis professional for the facility, and Atkinson was named director. He held this position until his retirement in 1995. In his honor, the tennis facility is known as the Stern-Atkinson Tennis Center.

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