In celebration of Black History Month, the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) released a digital exhibit, Breaking the Racial Barriers, which is a comprehensive look at the history of black tennis in America. The exhibit includes brief profiles of black tennis pioneers, former pros and current top pros, including tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams and Dr. R. Walter Johnson, who in 2009 was inducted into the (ITHF) as a contributor. Throughout the Australian Open, the will recognize selected black pioneers and current players.

Robert Walter Johnson earned the nickname, ‘Whirlwind,’ as a Negro All-American running back at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University (early 1920s) and the title ‘Doctor’ (1932) at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN.  In 2009, Dr. Johnson received his most prestigious honor posthumously when he became the first black person inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a contributor for his role in the early development of hundreds of black juniors, including tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. When Whirlwind was the director of the predominantly black American Tennis Association (ATA) Junior Development Program, more than a hundred of his proteges received college scholarships. 

From 1950 until his death in 1971, Whirlwind recruited the nation’s top black juniors, provided room and board and trained them on a clay court he built in the backyard of his Lynchburg, Va. home. Former pro Leslie Allen, who reached a career high No. 17, and teaching pros Willis Thomas (Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Washington, D.C.), Bob Davis (Coastal Tennis & Sports, LLC) and Art Carrington (Art Carrington Tennis Academy, Amherst, MA) passed through Whirlwind’s junior development program, which was a precursor to today’s high-tech academies. Davis, who was a teaching pro at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Bradenton, Fla., said, “Dr. Johnson knew we would all become better because we fed off each other. That’s the exact philosophy that Bollettieri used at his academy.”

Courtesy of International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF)