|Breaking the Seal
There are moments in history that I call “Breaking the Seal Moments.” Just as the pressure is forever released when one pulls the tab on a can of beer, there are occasions that act to change racial prejudice from that moment forward. There are just over a handful of “Breaking the Seal Moments” in tennis, but these moments changed the sport of tennis forever.
Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. Nearly 15 years later, in 1880, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) was founded (The name was later changed to USTA). Tennis was the dominion of the white, upper class and Blacks were neither interested, nor invited to participate. Segregation was rampant throughout America and an attitude of exclusion was pervasive in most areas of American society.
Blacks began to surface on tennis courts in about 1890 at Tuskegee Institute. Booker T. Washington, one of America’s great, black visionaries and leaders, founded Tuskegee. In his famous Atlanta Address of 1895, Booker T. Washington set forth the motivating spirit behind Tuskegee Institute. In a post Reconstruction era marked by growing segregation and disfranchisement of blacks, this spirit was based on what realistically might be achieved in that time and place. "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now," he observed, "is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." Because of Washington's extraordinary ability to work within the system and to maximize the possible, Tuskegee flourished to the extent only dreamed about when he met his first students on July 4, 1881.
The 1st “Breaking the Seal Moment” occurs in 1898 when Blacks began to have inter-club matches with rival black clubs in New York, Philadelphia and a variety of other eastern seaboard cities. These inter-club rivalries were primarily networking opportunities; occasions for the black, college-graduated elite to commune with their colleagues from other cities. This group of clubs eventually grew in number until an organizational structure was needed. In 1916, the American Tennis Association (ATA) was created as the governing body of Black tennis in America. In the fifty years since slavery was abolished, 80% of the Black population became educated. Nearly 4 million people came out of slavery as legislated illiterates and by 1915, an elite middle-class had been formed. By today’s standards, this is a phenomenal accomplishment. When one considers the growing rate of illiteracy across America, illiteracy that transcends racial lines, we should look at this statistic with awe and wonder!
Don Budge participated in a “Breaking the Seal Moment” in 1940 when he agreed to go into Harlem, NY to play an exhibition match against Jimmie McDaniel. This exhibition took place during the height of segregation. Don Budge was the # 1 player in the world and Jimmie McDaniel was the #1 Black player in the world. More than 2000 spectators jammed into the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club on Convent Avenue to watch a Black player compete, for the first time, against a top white player. Although McDaniel lost 6-1, 6-2, Budge but would say at the conclusion of the match that he felt that, if Jimmie were allowed to compete against all comers, he would likely be in the top ten in the world. A white player had taken a stand in support of equal opportunity.
Less than a decade later, a young Californian named Oscar Johnson arrived on the tennis scene. Oscar was the first Black player to enter a USLTA tournament. He won the National Junior Public Parks tournament at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. He also won the Pacific Coast Junior Championships in singles and doubles in 1946-1948. The 3rd “Breaking the Seal Moment” occurred when Oscar entered the USLTA National Junior Indoor Championships in St. Louis, MO. His entry was accepted and he presented himself at the armory where the event was being held. Carrying several racquets as he approached the tournament desk, the tournament official asked, “What are you doing here, boy?” Oscar replied that he was here to play in the tournament; that his application for entry had been accepted. “My name is Oscar Johnson!” The official looked down the list of entries and found Johnson’s name. “Well, I’ll be damned. But, you won’t play here, boy.” Mr. Richard Hudlin, a man that would later mentor and support Arthur Ashe, sent a telegram to the USLTA in New York. The USLTA soon answered and admonished the local officials and instructed them to allow Oscar to play. Oscar reached the ¼ finals before losing to Tony Trabert, who would later become one of the world’s top players. Oscar wasn’t the best player in the world, but he proved that he absolutely deserved to play among them!
Two years later, in 1950, Althea Gibson was getting recognition as a serious challenger to the best players in the world. But, her entries into the major events in America were being rejected because of her color. Again, a white player, Alice Marble stepped forward. The 4th “Breaking the Seal” Moment was when Ms. Marble wrote a letter to the USLTA that was published in the American Lawn Tennis Association Magazine. The entire letter can be viewed on this site, but it read in part, “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion.
I think it’s time we faced a few facts. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If there is anything left in the name of sportsmanship, it’s more than time to display what it means to us. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts, where tennis is played.” Althea Gibson went on to win the French Open in 1956 and U.S. National Championship and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958.
More Moments to follow!