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Black History Month Robert Walter Johnson

February 22, 2010

Over  the past two years, I profiled several black mathematicians, many of which had an indirect influence on my own career.  I’ve been very busy taking care of family issues as of late, so blogging has gone off my personal radar.  Even so, I recently realized I have yet to profile a single black contributor to the sport of tennis.

Modern players like Blake and Monfils capture the public eye with their incredible talent.  Who has not heard of the Williams sisters?  Some of us may even remember greats such as Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, the first male and female black winners at Wimbledon.  Whatever the Williams sisters achieve on the road of success, that road was paved by athletes such as Gibson.  In 1950, she was the first black woman to compete at the US Open. Gibson achieved the same status at Wimbledon in 1951.

But the history goes back even further than that.  Black tennis players have a godfather whose achievements paved the way for players like Gibson and Ashe.  Both these players were coached by Robert Walter Johnson.  Johnson was a physician by trade, but an intense tennis player.

Due to segregation, black tennis players in the South had no access to public courts and often little if any money for lessons.  Johnson established a tennis camp for African-American children where expenses and instructor fees were paid.  In some cases, blacks were denied access to hotels, so Johnson offered his house as lodging to distinguished African-Americans passing through the Lynchburg, VA area.

In 2002, the house and tennis court were added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2007, Dr. Johnson was nominated for inclusion in the International Tennis Hall of Fame to which he was inducted in 2009.

While you enjoy the success of modern black players in the time, I hope you also make time to search the web for more on “Whirlwind” Johnson, the person on whom much of the foundation of black tennis can be firmly pinned.

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