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The role of HBCUs and the black press in the rise of the American Tennis Association


(The Undefeated)
When the American Tennis Association’s (ATA) national championships were first planned out in 1917, the founders wanted the event to be more than an athletic gathering. This tournament, though humble in its beginnings, would be a social extravaganza.
Think Madea’s Family Reunion: Card games galore, the matriarchs and patriarchs assembling to discuss how far the event has come, and reuniting with one’s favorite cousins every year.
The nationals were the place to be even if one wasn’t watching or playing in the championships. A lot of that family reunion atmosphere was forged when the first black professional sports league in the United States hosted its marquee event at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Before 1927, the tournament was held at private clubs or public parks, but from 1927 to 1968, HBCUs hosted all but six of the ATA’s national tournaments. Bethune-Cookman University, Hampton University, Lincoln University, South Carolina State University, Tuskegee University, West Virginia State University and Wilberforce University played a pivotal role in the organization’s ability to expand, as the schools offered housing, dining and recreational facilities for the players, members and attendees.
To attend an ATA tournament at an HBCU meant reconnecting with old friends, rubbing shoulders with the celebrities of the day and becoming a member of a lifelong social and athletic network.
“The ATA is what really built black college tennis,” Arthur Carrington Jr. said. “ATA went on the campus and used the facilities … and it really became a recreational, social extravaganza.

“It was a phenomenal experience.”
Tennis legends such as Althea Gibson (Florida A&M), Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters (Tuskegee), Nathaniel and Franklin Jackson (Tuskegee), Jimmie McDaniel (Xavier University of Louisiana) and George Stewart (South Carolina State) all fine-tuned their games while at their postsecondary institutions.
Black folks created the ATA, the Negro Leagues, Black Wall Street, HBCUs and the black press to give their athleticism and intellectualism an arena to operate, since it was not allowed to prosper in the white world.
Besides historically black colleges and universities, the black press was another key component in the ATA’s winning equation. The news media worked with the ATA and was instrumental in providing nuanced and detailed coverage of its players and events.
If it were not for publications such as the Baltimore AfroAmerican, which detailed the ATA from its conception, the Chicago Defender,Philadelphia TribuneAtlanta Daily WorldLos Angeles SentinelNew York Amsterdam News and more, historical moments in black tennis achievement would be lost.
The coverage McDaniel received for playing six-time Grand Slam champion Don Budge in the highest profile interracial match of its time at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem, New York, in 1940, was an exception to the rule. It was not until the rise of Gibson and more extensively with the success of Arthur Ashe Jr. that the mainstream media began to cover black tennis and its players.
“One of the goals of the black press is to lift up black organizations and celebrating your black life and black culture,” said Gregory Huskisson, who covered the ATAs for the Atlanta Daily World while attending Morehouse College. “At that time, the ATA would come to town and they would have either a conference or tournaments to lift up and celebrate young people that were playing tennis.
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