Congressman John Lewis paid tribute to the late Dr. R. Walter (Whirlwind) Johnson last week. Rep. Lewis praised Dr. Johnson, who guided tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe during their formative years, for being “one of many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Era.”

Rep. Lewis’ tribute, which appears below, was published in the Congressional Record, November 21, 2008.




• Mr. LEWIS of Georgia. Madam Speaker I am honored to rise today to recognize the distinguished career and achievements of Dr. R. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, one of many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Era. We also recognize him for his role in guiding the early careers of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe–the nation’s first African American tennis.

•Dr. Johnson built a tennis court in the backyard of his Lynchburg, Virginia home during a time of racial segregation and spent more than 20 years (1950-71) training African American athletes who would go on to compete against top players at major junior events. Dr. Johnson primarily used his own funds to house, clothe, feed, and develop these junior players, including Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, who said repeatedly throughout their lives that they never would have made it without Dr. Johnson’s generosity and support.

•Dr. Johnson inspired, directly and indirectly, many of his students to pursue tennis-related careers, including Willis Thomas, president of the American Tennis Association (ATA) and tennis director with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF) in Washington, DC; former pro Leslie Allen, ex-chairwoman of the U.S. Fed Cup Team; former pro Zina Garrison, former U.S. Fed Cup captain; former pro Rodney Harmon, former head of men’s tennis for the United States Tennis Association (USTA); teaching pros Arthur Carrington and Bob Davis; United States Federal Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr.; and Doug Smith, who covered tennis for 3 of the nation’s largest newspapers–Newsday, the New York Post, and USA Today and is the author of Dr. Johnson’s biography, “Whirlwind, The Godfather of Black Tennis.”

•Dr. Johnson most significantly helped tear down racial barriers in tennis years ago and helped Americans understand that tennis should be enjoyed by all who play and love the game. Dr. Johnson also served as head football coach at 2 Georgia universities–Morris Brown University and Atlanta University–in the late 1920s. He later established a junior development tennis program to train and prepare African American players, including Arthur Ashe, to compete in the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) sanctioned tournaments. Whirlwind’s junior program was a prelude to the high-tech junior training academies and camps now run by tennis gurus Nick Bollitteri, Rick Macci and former No. 1 World Champion Chris Evert. Dr. Johnson operated the camp for more than 20 years and helped more than 100 African American juniors earn college tennis scholarships during that era.

•Madam Speaker, we should continue to honor American heroes like Dr. R. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson who fought for a better America without race barriers on and off the court. America and the game of tennis have both benefited an enormous amount because of Dr. R. Walter “Whirlwind,” Johnson and we as a Nation owe him and other American heroes a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Dr. Johnson has been nominated for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. He needs 75% of the vote to gain a position of honor at the Newport, RI facility. Voting results will be announced in late December. Let us hope that Congressman Lewis’ tribute will sway those still undecided.